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Good programming, good rehearsal preparation and a fine choice of soloist combined to make the second concert of the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra's 2008-09 season very special indeed. This orchestra possesses a sense of ensemble that many larger orchestras in much larger cities only wish they had. One reason seems to be a decade of tutelage under Music Director Thomas Joiner. Joiner has demonstrated superior pedagogic abilities working with college-age musicians for twenty-five years at the University of Georgia, Furman University, and the Brevard Music Center. His thoughtful approach to the literature and his communicative ability have also benefited the HSO greatly.
The program began with Beethoven's Overture to Fidelio, the only selection on the program that had obvious blemishes. The horn players got rid of all their bobbles during the overture; they were letter perfect the rest of the evening. The rest of the wind players seemed also a little uncomfortable at times, but the long dramatic arc and the gradual crescendos were excellent. By the end of the overture, everything was under control.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D was next. The string players work almost non-stop in this symphony, and the HSO players took Beethoven's instructions (and Joiner's rehearsal direction) seriously. Fortissimos, sudden dynamic contrasts, a dramatic use of rests, confident syncopation and other demanding features of the score were produced on demand. Not all conductors can connect with their players when giving dynamic guidance from the podium, but this conductor and these players communicate well in real time. There were contrapuntal passages late in the fourth movement where it would have been easy, piling voice on voice, to increase dynamics to a premature forte. Joiner gave palms-down guidance and held the musicians in check so that the subito fortissimo had the appropriate startling effect. Joiner's tempo choices resemble those of Furtwängler, which some of us consider definitive. This was a very satisfying performance.
Yakov Kasman was the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat minor. This Russian-born pianist won a silver medal in the 1997 Van Cliburn Piano Competition and now teaches at the University of Alabama Birmingham when not on the concert tour. His education at the Moscow Conservatory showed in his phenomenal technique, but what elevates Kasman into the inner circle of great current pianists is his interpretive abilities when collaborating with an orchestra (or, judging from his recordings, with chamber players). I have never heard the slow movement of this concerto demonstrate such seamless passing of themes between woodwind soloists and the pianist; I wondered if Kasman had accomplished a multi-party "Vulcan mind meld." I believe Star Trek's Mr. Spock could only join two minds; Kasman and the entire orchestra played that movement as though with one consciousness.
Never have I heard the Andantino movement taken so slowly; but then never have I heard the final Allegro con fuoco taken so rapidly. Filled with tortuous parallel octave passages and scintillating scales, I still can’t quite believe that Kasman maintained that tempo in the finale. But he not only got away with both those tempi, he made me a believer. Kasman has an amazing technique, but his technique is subservient to his musicality, and the tempi were correct on musical grounds. The audience agreed; repeated ovations brought Kasman back to play "November" from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, Op. 37b, ending an outstanding concert.
The remainder of the HSO season will utilize the Porter Center (Brevard College), the Peace Center (Greenville, SC), First Baptist Church (Hendersonville) and Arden Presbyterian Church (Arden). We shall not have to listen through the distorting filter of the terrible acoustics of the Hendersonville High School auditorium until next season.