This program was the first time I heard the Asheville Symphony Orchestra perform under the baton of Music Director Daniel Meyer since I returned to Asheville from Raleigh. In that city I was privileged to hear classics old and new, played with great beauty and musical excellence by numerous excellent orchestras. But on Saturday evening in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium I heard the Asheville Symphony play three pieces of moderately-difficult to difficult music with élan and musical proficiency quite favorably comparable to what I came to expect from leading Triangle orchestras. The Symphony’s admirable work was greatly enhanced by the brilliant playing of guest artist Daniil Trifonov, a young Russian pianist with prodigious technical skills who helped bring the concert to an exciting conclusion and the large audience to its feet in a thundering ovation. That I was delighted by the ASO’s performance is a resounding understatement.

In the first half of this concert the Asheville Symphony Orchestra performed two works: the much-beloved “Adagio for Strings” of Samuel Barber (1910-81) and the lesser-known Psyché of César Franck (1822-90).

Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (1937) is a brief but powerful work, very well known to audiences, with its obvious musical realization of the growth and climax of passion. Barber, in his carefully-crafted music, employs short, startling crescendos and decrescendos in the brief phrases within the musical lines, often abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics, and harmonies which encourage within the listener an irresistible, musically-inspired, climax of passion. This brief but emotionally-powerful cantilena has long been popular among concertgoers and remains so today.

The second work on this program was Franck’s four-part tone poem Psyché (1886-87). It tells tales of the developing passion between the teenage Psyche and the much older Eros, the god of love. Franck thickens the story lines, borrowed from an ancient novel, with the intrigues of interfering gods and goddesses and Venus’ jealousy of Psyche’s great beauty. Add to this bubbling cauldron a soupçon of innocence for Psyche, who has a habit of dreaming when she needs to be awake and aware of what is going on in the minds of those around her, and you have a fair idea of the shenanigans of the ancient world.

In the four movements of his tone poem Franck conflates the numerous stories of passion in sensual musical scenes, leaving out any portrayal of the actual passionate encounter between Psyche and Eros. In Saturday night’s performance of Franck’s work, the Asheville Symphony employed a narrator, Vivian Smith, to read a summary of events occurring in each movement of the poem, so that the audience would be able to appreciate the composer’s musical tone paintings. Although the narrator’s words were marginally helpful, I feel that the musical narrations and artistically-evoked scenes were far more effective than verbal accounts alone. For example, in his first movement Franck uses slow, somnolent music conveying to the listener the deep sleep of the young girl; in the second movement the flutes and first violins play phrases calling forth images of gentle breezes wafting her away to Eros’s garden. The Asheville Symphony played these movements, as well as the last two, in a manner that Franck would surely have approved.

The music in the second half of the concert consisted of one monumental work: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23, in B-flat minor (1874). The piano soloist in this work must possess supreme control over all the traditional pyrotechnics expected of respectable classical pianists, be able to perform seemingly unending cadenzas and arpeggios, and play restrained, lyrical lines. Such a pianist is Daniil Trifonov, a twenty-two-year-old Russian who just recently played a very successful concert at Carnegie Hall and who has charmed audiences in many of the great musical capitals of Europe and the Americas.

From the beginning to the end of his performance of this imposing concerto, Trifonov approached its musical challenges with great calm, anticipating all the demands he knew this music would place on him. The first of these was the well-known introduction to the first movement, which he executed with skill and ease. Throughout the rest of the movement, he seemed to bide his time, knowing he must be prepared for what was ahead: the seemingly endless cadenza that must be played with great restraint and thus give a clear indication of his ability to perform lengthy pianissimo passages. His success with this cadenza was dazzling and made many in the audience sit forward in their seats as they anticipated the manner in which he would approach the challenges ahead. In the second movement Trifonov had the chance to demonstrate his skill in shifting with great speed from the quiet melody, which had dominated the music so far, into a dazzling cadenza full of pyrotechnical display, which in turn led him and the orchestra into a cabaret melody. The rondo-finale third movement became a world of musical opportunities in which a melody with the accent on the wrong beat gradually leads to the climax and on to a brilliant coda in which Trifonov released as many pyrotechnical flourishes as he could manage to bring Tchaikovsky’s justly popular first concerto to an exciting conclusion.

During most of the performance of the concerto, the audience sat spellbound; one might indeed have heard a pin drop. But when the music ended, the hall exploded in the greatest ovation I have ever heard, which persuaded Trifonov, no matter how tired he might have been, to offer not one but two encores: Nikolai Medtner’s “Fairy Tales” and a Schumann-Liszt joint effort, “Widmung.” While both of these enabled Trifonov to display his great technical skills, the first piece revealed his supreme skill: bringing to gentle life the restrained, pianissimo lines so many of us love so much.