For those who think that classical music is on death's doorstep, I would like to recount my experience in the mountains of North Carolina, where on March 18 a small city orchestra in a substandard performing arts hall gave a performance including an organist – and it sold out. What's more, there were young people there! Yes, that's right – Daniel Meyer and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra were joined by renowned organist Marilyn Keiser to perform a challenging classical music program, and young people were interested. The Executive Director of the ASO, Stephen Hageman, asked the audience to let the city council members in attendance know by way of applause if they felt they needed a new performing arts venue. The place exploded for two minutes, leaving me wondering how anyone could say classical music is dying.
It is fitting that the evening began with one of the most organic of all composers, Johann Sebastian Bach. In almost any compilation of the greatest classical music of all time, and certainly in any "Bach's greatest hits" album, one will find the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, S.565. The debate still swirls as to whether the piece was actually written for organ or for strings but, as in most of Bach's music, the contrapuntal mastery and spiritual message would come through even if it were played on a kazoo. The chosen medium for this evening's performance was a symphonic arrangement by Leopold Stokowski, modified by Meyer to include the organ. The sonic possibilities of such an arrangement are infinite, but it fell flat. Timing was poor on the part of the orchestra and the soloist; miscues abounded. The hall's acoustics may explain why the fugue sounded muddy when both organ and orchestra were playing simultaneously. It takes a special orchestra to be able to program Bach and capture the nuances and subtleties necessary to illuminate his works fully. On this night, Meyer and the ASO did not rise to that level. Keiser is clearly capable but she, too, seemed to be struggling with the acoustics and the instrument. The liveliness and power of the piece were not captured.
The always-innovative Maurice Ravel penned Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) in 1908 as a work for piano four hands. Then in 1912 he was commissioned to do a ballet based on the Mother Goose tales and used these duets as the core of the new ballet. It is a magical piece, ethereal in nature and vivid in imagery. Meyer and the ASO rebounded and nailed the Ravel with good timing and effervescent sonorities. Unlike the Bach, every passage was well thought out and delicately shaped, and there was a concerted effort to reinvent Ravel's magical world. Of particular note was the harpist, whose glissandos twinkled. There are eight sections in the piece, and each one was eruditely outlined in Kenneth Meltzer's program notes, giving the audience the background of the story. The fifth section, "Petit poucet" ("Hop-o' My Thumb"), was a highlight as the strings and the woodwinds recreated the sounds of birds gobbling up the breadcrumbs that Hop-o' My Thumb dropped to find his way home. Meyer had a painter's touch and with each stroke of the baton produced vivid colors throughout the suite.
Saint-Saëns' voluptuous Symphony No. 3 in C Minor ("Organ") was commissioned by the London Philharmonic in 1886; it found many willing listeners, despite the novel use of a pipe organ in the finale. Saint-Saëns felt that "the time has come for the symphony to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation." It clearly did, and this was made evident in the performance. From the beginning to the boisterous end, the ASO triumphed. The stage was filled to overflowing as this work contains a standard full orchestra with the addition of a piano, an organ, a full percussion section, and a harp. Needless to say, the less than desirable acoustic became a non-factor when this ensemble rose to full volume. The symphony is basically divided into two sections. It begins with a brief adagio section that was played with superior control. The strings introduced the primary theme with vigorous passion and yet moderation that led the listener to wonder what treasures were to come. It is very difficult to generate suspense in a work that is so well known, but this reviewer was on the edge of his seat for the remainder of the piece. After the introduction of the second theme and the development section, the orchestra dwindles down to the cello section and some tranquil pizzicato notes that signal the beginning of an adagio. The organ enters in a muted role, accompanying the strings in the flowing theme. After a rapturous coda, the first section comes to an end.
With the hall quiet and in a dream-like state, a chord of such voluminous proportions was struck on the organ that there were gasps and jumps all around. Knowing full well what was coming, I myself was startled, too. Keiser obviously did not use the full organ in the opening piece, so it came as a surprise that this electric organ could reach such decibels. The theme is then tossed back and forth playfully and yet another theme is introduced by the brass section. It must be said that the timpani were the highlight of the second movement – they raged, but with perfect rhythm. The pianist also had the unenviable challenge of actually being heard amidst all the tumult of the grand ensemble, and he came through quite well. Keiser worked closely with the group and achieved the task of intensifying the sonorities without overpowering the orchestra. All in all, it was certainly the pièce de résistance of the concert.
It would have been nice if Keiser had played a more prominent role in the event. We never got to see her really let loose and display her capabilities. A Handel organ concerto would perhaps have been better suited to the program. That said, it was satisfying to see a small city orchestra fill a hall to standing room only and give a performance that belies their status and the opinions of the detractors who claim that our time in the classical concert hall is soon going to be over.