The 2016-17 season of the Asheville Symphony began with a splendid concert. Music Director Daniel Meyer conducted an all-Tchaikovsky program that concluded with the impressive Jennifer Koh as soloist in the Violin Concerto in D.
In comments at UNC-Asheville the previous day, Maestro Meyer said that as a young conductor, he had decided never to propose a program dedicated to one composer. But in planning this season (his last full season with the ASO), he realized that he could present a program with great contrasts by choosing Tchaikovsky as his "one composer." Tchaikovsky wrote operas, ballets, tone poems, symphonies and several great concerti. There is much to choose from in the repertoire for full orchestra.
As the opener, Meyer had chosen The Sleeping Beauty Ballet Suite, Op. 66a, arranged by the composer in 1889 through a reordering of some memorable moments from the ballet The Sleeping Beauty. This is a fine ballet – not staged as often as it should be. I have seen it danced just once, while I have seen four complete performances of Swan Lake (once notably featuring Margot Fonteyn and the Sadler's Wells Ballet) and over a dozen of The Nutcracker – so many that I have lost count.
The music in this suite evokes deep emotions, and it is a tribute to Meyer and the orchestra that they let the composed notes convey these emotions, not trying to squeeze out more schmaltz than Tchaikovsky intended. The entire suite of five movements was satisfying, with the brief "Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat" movement especially well played. The concluding Valse was a triumph.
Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32, is inspired by a brief passage in Dante's Inferno referring to the adulterous Francesca confined in the second circle of Hell. Tchaikovsky's music exhibits exquisite taste in orchestration, and his instrumental choices at key moments of this tone poem are appropriate. He uses clarinet over pizzicato strings for the lushly sensuous "Lancelot" theme, then repeats the theme in strings, then delivers the theme a third time back in the clarinet with an oboe countermelody. The use of horns and trombone to indicate the slaying of Francesca and her lover, and their expiration, was evocative in the extreme. Bass drum gets featured. Brilliant orchestration, and very well executed. I was distracted by the noise of Thomas Wolfe Auditorium's air conditioning system during the quiet passages. I tried to imagine that it was the "stormy winds of Hell," but couldn't quite convince myself.
Back in 1994, American violinist Koh shared top honors in the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, where she also won a special prize for the best performance of Tchaikovsky's work. Listening to her perform the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, it is easy to see what impressed the judges. Her performance on Saturday was nothing short of amazing, both in technique and in thoughtful interpretation. Her use of sul tasto and sul ponticello coloration, her exquisite cadenza, her sweet tone in the Canzonetta, the fiery Finale – no wonder that Musical America has named Koh their 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year.*
Meyer will conduct the full 2016-17 season and a partial 2017-18 season, before he relinquishes his position with the Asheville Symphony. He has been a great director – successful in improving this orchestra through judicious personnel changes and consistent good guidance of the players. As the sponsoring society seeks a new music director, they have a much stronger orchestra to offer than they had twelve years ago. We can hope that the next director brings to the table a fraction of what Maestro Meyer has given us. I am missing him already.