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Daniel Meyer is certainly no stranger to innovative programming, and this concert in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium may well be his best yet. Meyer showcased with the orchestra the amazing talents of the Asheville Symphony Chorus under the direction of Dewitt Tipton, five actors from the Asheville-based North Carolina Stage Company (directed by Angie Flynn-McIver), and three superb vocal soloists — soprano Elizabeth Grayson, mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley, and tenor Scott Joiner. The concert was not only musically impressive in every way, so greatly enriched by its vocal and dramatic elements, but was also a resounding affirmation for the healthy state of the arts in our area.
It is so rare to hear the program's opener, Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed as the composer had intended, with actors, orchestra, chorus, and two female soloists. The composer had heard the Bards plays for many years read aloud in his own home, and after the composition of the famous overture inspired by the play, returned to add more movements to serve as incidental music for an 1843 production. With the immortal words present one could more clearly understand his inspiration in those moments. For this concert Meyer programmed about 90 percent of the material, casting it in the form of a suite lasting over one hour with the Shakespearean lines Mendelssohn had indicated in the score acted out as tableaus in front of the orchestra. The orchestral performance of this challenging score was polished and beautifully nuanced, no more so than in the "Nocturne" with its gorgeous horn solos and wavering flute accompaniment. The women's chorus, Grayson, and Hawley were featured in two movements — the singing of a lullaby to Titania in gossamer, bell-like tones, and a playful conclusion in the romping Finale ("And this ditty after me/Sing and dance it trippingly"). Kudos to Lauren Kriel (Puck), Andrew Hampton Livingston (Fair, Flute), Dusty McKeelan (Bottom), Vivian Smith (Titania), and Catori Swann (Oberon) for their evocative portrayal of the tangled and mischievous world of the Fairies.
After intermission all the stops were pulled out, as the entire mixed chorus, 100 members strong, was present for the last two pieces. Gerald Finzi's ceremonial ode For St. Cecilia, Op. 30, composed in 1946-7 to Edmund Blunden's text, is a grand summation of musical praise to the patron saint of music. The language of the text is that of breathless praise, religious fervor, and lover-like devotion in which the august company of past English composers — Merbecke, Byrd, Dowland, Purcell, and Handel (claimed as English here) — are summoned by name. This fervent utterance is matched musically in the tenor soloist's high arcing lines and sustained, operatic high notes delivered in thrilling fashion by the accomplished Mr. Joiner, and orchestral music which variously blazes in fanfares, hushes in reverential tones, or falls silent to the a cappella choral passages. This is stirring music indeed, and this inspired performance was one to remember.
The colorful Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin from his opera Prince Igor brought the concert to a close. Left unfinished at the time of the composer's death, the opera was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov and premiered in 1890, although Borodin had already completed the dances, the part of the work that since has become so famous. While performed most often as an instrumental suite, the addition of the chorus brings us even closer to the opera. They sing nostalgically at first of their native land and past happiness in the well-known melody later used in the Broadway musical Kismet, and later build to a frenzied and repeated roar of praise to the Khan's glory. Meyer took a very brisk tempo and everyone hung on, creating a stupendous climax at the end. Kudos to everyone, but especially to Chip Hill who played the dickens out of the prominent "Klezmer-like" clarinet solo.