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The Asheville Symphony Orchestra led a program of Scandinavian and Slavic music inspired by folktales and mythology. The performance was sponsored by the Asheville Symphony Guild and guest artist sponsors Maurice and Bonnie Stone. The audience turnout was higher than I'd seen in past concerts, and there was a certain excitement for the pieces on the program. Familiar to the ASO, music director Darko Butorac conducted a program consisting of two tone poems by Jean Sibelius from his Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22, Pyotr Tchaikovsky's famed violin concerto, and Igor Stravinsky's Suite from The Firebird.
The first piece was Sibelius' "Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari" from the Lemminkäinen Suite. This piece solidified what to expect from the whole concert. It was swelling, buoyant, and alive. Butorac did not shy away from the dynamics that characterize Sibelius and make his music so iconic. There are dramatic and sharp changes that are difficult to control effectively; it is almost grotesquely emotional and impactful.
Guest performances are always exciting, and this program was no different (especially considering how famed this next piece is). Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 is infamous for its difficulty and intimidating passages. Filled with cadenzas, idiomatic phrases, arpeggios, runs, and every other trick a violin can produce, it took nearly three years for a soloist to agree to premiere the composition in 1881. ASO's guest artist was William Hagen, a seasoned violinist who has performed with various American symphonies (including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and numerous international ensembles. Hagen performed on the 1732 "Arkwright Lady Rebecca Sylvan" Antonio Stradivari, which was provided on a generous loan from the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation.
The concerto was likely the audience favorite. It was exuberant, exciting, and unabashedly romantic. I've always interpreted the first movement as a kind of explosion of adolescent youth, one that takes delight in the tangents and cliches. Hagen executed every difficult passage with utter ease. The first movement ended with a standing ovation before the piece fully finished. The rest of the piece was no less sublime and practically exploded at the end. Hagen earned several standing ovations.
The first piece after intermission was another tone poem from Lemminkäinen, "The Swan of Tuonela." It was a complete turnaround from the Tchaikovsky concerto, somber and dark in its mood. This piece, also inspired by folklore and mythology, was a beautiful addition to parallel the first half of the program and helped set the emotional background for the finale.
Stravinsky's Firebird Suite is a bombastic piece to say the least. Comprised of themes and movements from the full-length ballet, it is easy to see how this music is supposed to be set against movement and dance. It's constantly moving and vibrant, never stopping to breathe much at all. This was another instance of Butorac not shying away from dynamics or tension, but in fact leaning into the uncomfortable.
It must be acknowledged that this program is interesting when considered against the political situation in Europe with Russia invading Ukraine. Two different Russian composers were slated along with Finland's Sibelius. Sibelius was and is a monumental cultural icon in Finland, and he is often credited with helping to create a Finnish national identity following Russia's occupation and battlement in Finland (which established its independence in 1917). It is too easy to acknowledge that all three composers created epic pieces of music that are beloved and respected across nationalities, and I can't help but wonder if this idea was present in the minds of the musicians onstage during their performance.