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At 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 16, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra’s fourth Masterworks concert of the season will be presented in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The program is a substantial one, with major works by Brahms and Saint-Saëns supplemented by some Johann Strauss, Jr. waltzes. This should provide a good opportunity to check the progress of the ASO’s stimulating new Music Director, Daniel Meyer.
Now in his third year with the ASO, Meyer is making his presence felt though the improvements in the orchestra’s performances. A new music director has a modest impact during his first season. His rehearsals begin to shape the playing of the orchestra he has inherited. By the third season, however, two years of his influence, subtle and not so subtle, become more evident. The ASO has a new concertmaster, Jason Posnock, who has worked with Meyer in Pittsburgh, and is known in North Carolina through his work at the Brevard Music Center. There have been changes in other section leaders, with one recent conservatory graduate being elevated.
Meyer’s rehearsal technique is good. Observing a November rehearsal where I could move about the hall, I saw him use all parts of his body to convey his musical intent. Cocked wrists, twitched elbows and supple shoulder movements signaled transitions. He gave smiles, nods and “thumbs up” signs when the musicians followed his verbal instructions. His strong stick technique provided clarity during a passage in Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” that has mixed rhythm (4/4, 3/4 and 2/4). Throughout the rehearsal, he conveyed a sense of surety and security that is bound to reassure an orchestra.
In the rehearsal, Meyer used his singing voice to illustrate timbral modulations that he wanted the wind instruments to produce. Hearing his singing, it is not surprising to learn that he came to conducting through high school operettas that he composed, with his vocal compositions stimulated by his interest in voice. Raised in Cleveland, he studied piano (beginning in first grade) and violin (beginning in third grade, later adding viola), but choral music was an equal passion. During his years at Denison University and the University of Cincinnati, he continued to compose choral works and conduct them. He then studied conducting at Boston University and the Höchschule für Musik in Vienna. A 2002 winner of the Aspen Conducting Prize, he later assisted Music Director David Zinman at Aspen.
As Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, he works regularly with a major American orchestra. Now as Music Director of both the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, he is directing the future of two community orchestras. His results with Asheville so far are an indication of thought, ability and energy.
The February 16 concert will allow the audience to see Meyer work with a young violinist, Celeste Gordon, who will perform Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3. If he collaborates as well with Ms. Gordon as he did in recent concerts with French hornist Terry Roberts, Celtic harpist William Jackson and cellist Zuill Bailey, all will go well.
Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 will provide a test of both orchestra and conductor, and an indication of their progress to date. Brahms is noted for the complexity of his music’s inner voices, and there are many different ways to approach them. Giving due attention to the detail but not losing the overall symphonic thought, Meyer suggests, requires “a balance of logic, academic craft and emotion.”
Starting with conductors like von Bülow, every great conductor has had his own take on the interpretation of Brahms, and must convince his orchestra to take the required steps to demonstrate that approach. The February audience will be remembering performances they have heard in the past as they consider how well the ASO is responding to their new conductor and how well they are articulating the details without losing the long musical lines.
Three months ahead of the concert, Meyer was pondering his approach to the finale of the Third Symphony. He mused “The question is just how much rubato to use … how much push and pull do you give?” Perhaps the answer to all such interpretive questions is contained in Meyer’s summary comment about the craft of the conductor: “You have to invest yourself, your mind, and your emotion in the experience.” Asheville appears to have a Music Director with a good mind and a wide range of emotions.