Orchestral Music Review

Asheville Symphony with James Dick - Tribute to Black Mountain College

September 16, 2006 - Asheville, NC:

Daniel Meyer is a perfect fit for Asheville. In a city known for its diversity, youth, and verve, who better to be on the podium at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium than a young, enthusiastic firebrand? His choice of programming reflects the spirit of the town, and perhaps the most impressive aspect of his tenure is the way he has reached out to the youth of the city. It seems that compared to other city orchestras, the Asheville Symphony always has a large contingent of people under thirty. This observation played it self out yet again on the evening of September 16 as a substantial deputation of students from Warren Wilson College were in attendance. When the ASO president announced to the audience that the group was there, the students shouted and clapped as if they were at a football game. Quite refreshing, indeed.

Alas, all is not completely well with the ASO, though. A vision comes to mind of Meyer kneeling before his bed at night praying, "God in your infinite mercy and grace, grant us a new performing arts hall." Indeed, the need is desperate. The 35 year old Wolfe Auditorium is well beyond its years and it was never really suitable anyway. When it was dedicated in 1971, comedian Bob Hope was on hand. After having complimented the city profusely he said "...and you have built yourself a nice garage." The sentiment is obviously echoing today as support seems to be growing for a new hall. Time will tell. In the meantime, the show must go on!

The evening's program was built around events and characters who had something to do with nearby Black Mountain College. That said, the opening work is Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, and of course we know that Herr Ludwig never left Europe. However, the composer featured in the second piece, John Cage, was a professor at Black Mountain College who raised a furor when he delivered a vicious diatribe of criticisms against the music of Beethoven. Granted, the connection is a stretch, but the program works well nonetheless.

The guest performer featured in the Beethoven concerto was American-born pianist James Dick. He is the founder and creative director of the Festival/Institute at Round Top, Texas. His reading of the enormous Fourth Concerto was full of warmth and luscious tonal colors. The orchestra overpowered him in the first movement, though, due to the fact that despite his supple lyricism, he did not have a big sound.

In the second movement the dialog between soloist and orchestra was veiled and dark; the well-timed responses by Dick made the conversation suspenseful. The piece closes with a virtuosic finale in which the pianist seemed a little uncomfortable, but his interpretative subtleties managed to bring the audience to a spiritual understanding of the composer. Overall, what the pianist lacked in sheer virtuosity he made up for with a colorful, intensely emotional performance.

After intermission, the stagehands walked to the floor carrying an interesting little object which brought laughter from the audience. A toy piano, similar to the one often seen in the Peanuts comics, was about to make its debut on the ASO stage in Cage's "Suite for Toy Piano." Meyer proceeded to sit on the miniature bench (no more than 9" from the floor) and play the opening themes of the piece. Then he returned to the podium to conduct Lou Harrison's transcription of the suite for full orchestra. Color was the most striking element in this piece. The plethora of instruments used created contrasts in timbre and mood which is something that can't really be done on a nine-key toy piano. Nevertheless, the piece, in whatever form, has beautiful melodies and varied harmonies that were masterfully recreated by Meyer and the ASO.

To end this enchanting evening, Meyer chose another colossus, the Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók. The piece demonstrated the conducto's keen programming capability once again as it struck a perfect balance with the brooding Beethoven and comic relief of the Cage suite. It also should be stated that Bartók spent a few years in Asheville during his stay in the US, which qualified him for inclusion in the concert. The five-movement work was written in 1943 in honor of conductor Serge Koussevitzky's late wife, Natalie. The third movement, marked Elegia: Andante non troppo, was a highlight as the composer effectively evoked the despair and helplessness of losing a loved one. Tempos were a little rushed in the finale, perhaps in an attempt to "bring down the house" with a piece that is not necessarily intended for that purpose. It did, however, achieve that goal and the audience erupted with vigor in appreciation for the new sound and rapid growth that Meyer brings to the ASO.