The Asheville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Daniel Meyer reprised their fourth Masterworks program “Red Hot and Blue” as part of the Porter Center Artist Series at Brevard College. Di Wu, a Van Cliburn competition finalist and winner of Juilliard’s William Petschek Piano Debut Recital Award, was the featured soloist in Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue." Offering something for everybody — the much-beloved American jazz favorite, Handel’s festive Overture from Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 10 — the program was gratifying not only in its emotional scope but also its fine execution. Several in the audience had come to hear the program a second time, and with good reason.
Not only are the acoustics of the Porter Center superior to those of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, but the orchestra’s inspired playing under Meyer’s direction merits such attention. The orchestra’s personnel are experienced musicians and collectively they seem up to any challenge Meyer hands them. They play with energy, focus, and meticulous attention to detail, rendering each piece with stylistic integrity.
Handel’s Overture, composed to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 ending the eight-year War of Austrian Succession, was commissioned to accompany a fireworks display. This “outdoor” music with its scoring for violins and the “warlike instruments” of woodwinds, brass, and drums works splendidly also as festive indoor music. The majestic opening bars with their regal dotted rhythms recall a kind of formality especially cultivated in 18th century ceremonial music. The orchestra’s range of terraced dynamics was dramatic, and in the softer passages the synthesized “harpsichord” could be clearly heard. Meyer’s brisk tempi in the two Allegro sections resulted in some breathtaking string passagework against the soaring brass lines — absolutely thrilling!
With Di Wu and Meyer’s direction, Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" was clearly in good hands. Wu is a powerful player and was more than a match for the orchestra, but knows when to hold back where necessary. Most impressive were her careful voicings in several extended solo passages and her near-chamber-like touch in quieter passages which she performed as introspective quasi-improvisatory interludes.
Like a massive emotional counterweight to the preceding works came Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 after intermission. Shostakovich had labored for years under Stalinist repression, at times in defiance and at others in deference to the Soviet regime. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the composer set to work to write a work that would incorporate not only a portrait of Stalin in its second movement, but also a portrait of himself in the third movement, also a scherzo. A four-note motive of D/E-flat/C/B, crafted from a transliteration of the composer’s initials, embodies his presence, not only in this movement, but in the finale, heard over and over as though in triumph over the dictator. Meyer took an extra moment, standing quietly on the podium with head down, to collect himself and in so doing, gather us all together for what we were about to experience.
This is clearly “indoor” music composed for the concert hall, but at times it strains against the physical constraints of the building. The orchestration is huge, with much written as massive blocks of sounds — low winds, horns alone, all brass, low strings, percussive outbursts. Solos and duets emerge, but the brooding mass of the orchestra is never far away. The first movement sounds like one huge arch, building inexorably from a dark serpentine melody in the low strings to a shattering climax, only to recede again to the same brooding string sounds. The second movement, Stalin’s portrait, sounds like a forced and furious march, relentlessly intense. Meyer stabbed out cues right and left into the abrupt end of the movement, resulting in someone spontaneously shouting what we were all thinking — “Whew!”
The elusive third movement scherzo proceeded in triple meter, but most of the phrasing worked against the meter, creating a “contrarian” portrait of musical defiance. In the finale the 4-note motive introduced previously becomes prominent. The music refuses to settle into any one meter, and the incessant repetitions of blocks of dissonant music are both thrilling and unsettling. This was truly an inspired performance that appeared to have left Meyer emotionally spent, and brought the audience to its feet. Bravi tutti!