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The week of March 17-22 marked Asheville’s first-ever Amadeus Festival, a week-long celebration of Mozart’s life and works ranging from performances and recitals to discussions and even Mozart-themed yoga. I had the pleasure of returning to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville to attend a service that featured some of Mozart’s sacred works performed by the UUCA Choir and the Blue Ridge Orchestra Chamber Symphony. The Blue Ridge Orchestra “is comprised of accomplished amateur, semi-professional and professional musicians who volunteer their time in an effort to make orchestral music more accessible to the community."
The service began with a brief introduction by Rev. Mark Ward, who described some of the salient traits of Mozart and his music. He then asked the audience to stand and sing in unison Mozart’s “Alleluia.” The full, bright sound of the choir was composed of singers ranging from perhaps college students and upwards. The orchestra, too, filled the hall with musicians of varying ages.
After some announcements, the second piece began – and I was instantly wowed. Mozart’s Gloria from the Coronation Mass, K.317, truly showed the choir and the orchestra’s musicality and phrasing. I realized the strengths of the choir lay in their rich tones, phrase shaping, and part balance. The sopranos were never overpowering, a blend that many ensembles in my experience have struggled to achieve. Despite the seemingly small size of the orchestra, they dazzled me with their intensity and their volume, each musician’s eyes glued to their music so not as to make a mistake. A few moments into the piece, the choir quieted to feature the soloists: soprano Gwenn Roberts, mezzo-soprano Mary Cornielson, tenor Randall Outland, and bass Phillip Haynie. I found myself mesmerized as various colors of voices and tones shone through the orchestral and choir layers. My attention was sometimes redirected to the string section, which was not always on the beat with the conductor. Despite this inconsistency, however, the audience and I were pleasantly surprised by the impressive sound and rigor of the music performed.
The next number, the Adagio from Moazrt's Clarinet Concerto in A, K 622, featured clarinetist Steve Loew. The choir sat and admired Loew’s lyrical and lovely performance as he fluidly transitioned from one phrase to another. Loew often closed his eyes while he played, swaying into the melodic lines with his whole body. Again, the orchestra struggled to remain together; where one part rushed, another fell behind the beat. When ensemble is a problem, one wonders if they had enough rehearsal time.
After a beautiful procession of candle-lit prayers, the service continued with the Agnus Dei from the Coronation Mass. The orchestra wove lovely lines of melodies, preparing for soprano soloist Roberts to join in mere moments. She gracefully stood to ready herself for such a challenging solo. Roberts’ gorgeous phrasing coupled with a light, fluttery tone allowed pleased listeners another moment to enjoy Mozart’s music sung to its fullest potential. The solo itself ranged from quite a low and lyrical register to quick, high-pitched scalar runs. Roberts performed with grace and precision, but I wanted to hear more of her voice. The remainder of the solo quartet joined into the mix for a swell of stunning sound. The piece took a jovial and animated turn at the concluding "Dona nobis pacem” section, as pleased congregation members breathed audible sighs of delight at the final concluding chord.
The service concluded with a cadenza from the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K.488. A young gentleman sat at the piano and began to play a string of notes far beyond my comprehension. Pianist Nicholas O’Leary baffled audience members who sat with jaws dropped as they listened to this concluding number. His eyebrows raised at the clash and resolve of the melodies, employing rubato throughout the phrases. This short yet impressive number left members of the audience on a high note (pardon the pun) as they exited and went about their Sunday afternoons.