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Obviously the Asheville Symphony, under the direction of Music Director Daniel Meyer, is doing the right things because the cavernous Thomas Wolfe Auditorium of the U.S. Cellular Center complex was full for the closing concert of the 2014-15 season. And full is really big; 2,400 people can be seated in this cement-floored edifice with its high proscenium stage at one end of the rectangular hall, not unlike the famed Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. But there the resemblance ends, because unlike the Concertgebouw, acoustics in Wolfe Auditorium do not favor the unamplified symphony orchestra!
Despite the lack of a satisfactory hall, the Asheville Symphony boasts outstanding principal players in every section and a fine, if small (43 players), string section. The musical leadership of Maestro Meyer is inspiring and contributes much to the finesse of the performance – and probably to the undeniable popularity of the "Masterworks" series.
The program for the evening featured four eclectic works, all written in the first half of the last century; three by French composers and one by an American. The saxophone was predominant in the first three works on the program, beginning with the posthumously orchestrated “Rhapsodie for Alto Saxophone” (1911) by Claude Debussy. Although the work is in one movement, there are two distinct sections, the first, improvisatory, diaphanous and tender, answers affirmatively Debussy's question, "Does this instrument ever indulge in tenderness, like the clarinet?" Indeed, soloist Joe Lulloff, a faculty member at both Michigan State University and the Brevard Music Center began the opening cadenza more softly than one thought possible of the saxophone and with a rich refined tone, expressive vibrato and near-perfect intonation. The closing section is more rapid and rhythmic in the orchestra accompaniment but with much of the same lyrical improvisatory nature in the solo part. A lovely horn solo (with vibrato!) made a perfect dialogue with the saxophonist.
The second work on the program consisted of three excerpts from a much-reworked piece, Black, Brown and Beige (1943) by Duke Ellington, in the 1999 orchestration of Jeff Tyzik, a well-known conductor and arranger. For this work, our soloist, Mr. Lulloff, joined the woodwind section of the orchestra where his prominence as the sole saxophone was matched only by the prominence of the outstanding trumpets, unnamed in the program. Although clearly appreciated and enjoyed by the head-bobbing audience as well as the orchestra, this work is episodic and not particularly suited to the intricate development we come to expect from longer movements and works of music.
A misprinted intermission followed and was itself followed by another short work in three movements, Scaramouche, Opus 165c (1937) by Darius Milhaud, originally written for two pianos and later arranged by the composer for saxophone and orchestra. Playing this time from memory, Lulloff amazed the audience with his nimble virtuosity (barely matched by orchestra solos) and sweet tone.
Maurice Ravel has written and orchestrated some of the most popular works in the orchestral repertory – think only of “Boléro” and Pictures at an Exhibition. Another popular (and very difficult) work is the ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, from which Ravel extracted two suites, the second of which is far more often played that the first. Both suites were performed at this concert and gave rise to a well-deserved standing ovation. The solo in the “Pantomime” was superbly played by principal flute Lissie Shannahan, with just enough rubato to be expressive yet enough respect of the tempo to maintain the form of the “Habañera.”
I did, however, wish for a bit more nuance and flexibility of tempo so fastidiously notated in the score in the transition moments from the “Lever du jour” and the “Pantomime.” Otherwise, the exquisitely coiffed and elegant Maestro Meyer was clearly in charge of this ambitious and powerful performance. From time to time, a program almost entirely composed of well-executed musical episodes can be refreshing!