Valentine’s Day provided the theme for the fourth Masterworks program of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra season. David Diamond, Frederic Chopin, George Gershwin and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky provided the romantic scores. Pianist Angela Cheng joined Maestro Daniel Meyer and the ASO to provide the performances. A capacity audience in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium provided the applause.
David Diamond (1915-2005) was an American composer who refused to embrace the twelve-tone music that dominated the middle part of the twentieth century. He commuted between Manhattan (where he taught at the Juilliard School) and his home in Rochester where he composed prolifically for orchestra, chamber groups and vocalists. Toward the end of his life, his symphonic works finally reached the general public. While often classified as a “twentieth century romantic” along with Howard Hanson, Diamond’s music is actually much edgier. His “Music for Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’” opened the program. His orchestration and choices of solo instruments are outstanding. The clash of clarinet with trumpet evokes the enmity of the two families. In the balcony scene, concertmaster Jason Posnock and principal violist Kara Poorbaugh provided an interwoven duet standing out against the lush orchestral background. When Friar Laurence meets with Romeo, the brass choir and low strings depict the scene. When Juliet conspires with her Nurse, bassoon and clarinet show her playful youthfulness. When the lovers meet their inevitable death, repeated rising fifths sound like the long slow breaths of eternity, while woodwind accents retain our dramatic interest. I would have liked the orchestra to lighten up when Juliet was at play; otherwise their execution was very good.
Canadian pianist Angela Cheng joined the orchestra for Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, a work about which I have often felt tepid. But Cheng and Meyer made me sit up. In the first movement, they let the internal romanticism of the composition speak for itself; too many artists wrench the movement with emotional overkill. Cheng’s second movement then stood out as the heart of the composition. Meyer anticipated Cheng’s rubato passages and kept the orchestra in synchronism with the soloist. When the bassoon presented an emotional countermelody, Cheng turned to concentrate her attention on Michael Burns. The third movement, as always, didn’t excite me, but Cheng and Meyer had given us new insights to the first two movements.
As for Gershwin’s “Lullaby,” the less said the better. Written as a string quartet when Gershwin was studying orchestration, it is simply a student work by a gifted student. The ASO did not help this boring work with their poor high string intonation in some passages.
The final work was Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.” How amazing that an English literary genius presents us with an Italian tragedy, which is then treated musically in three contrasting pieces by two Russians and an American (Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Diamond). Placed on the same program, the Slavic romanticism of the Tchaikovsky contrasted nicely to the American modernism that Diamond used in the program opener. Tchaikovsky was rather fond of high entries by cold French horns, and some of the ASO’s brass entries were sloppy on Saturday. But otherwise this familiar warhorse provided a satisfactory conclusion to the evening.
As always, one attends a concert at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium wondering how the acoustics will be for your particular seat. In Orchestra Left close to the stage, the cellos (aiming directly at me) were out of balance, dominating the first violins. I am sure that in Orchestra Right, the opposite was true. There is no way we will fully appreciate the ASO until a new concert hall is built, with acoustics that couple the stage properly to the hall.