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In arranging a symphonic program, the conductor traditionally starts with a chosen soloist or a desired symphony and then builds the rest of the program around that selection. In recent years, the starting point is often a "theme" rather than a single work or soloist. And so it was when the Asheville Symphony Orchestra's second masterworks concert was titled "Great Scot!" Music Director Daniel Meyer conducted four works, three of which had ties to the theme of Scotland. Verdi, William Jackson, and Mendelssohn were the "Scottish" composers, and Mozart was the outsider. Maybe Mozart had attended a Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, but he certainly didn't travel to the Highlands, nor even to Midlothian.
But then neither did Guiseppe Verdi, yet his "Ballet Music" from Macbeth proved most appropriate as the opening work on the program. You are unlikely to have heard this ballet music, composed for the Paris Opera revision eighteen years after the opera we hear today. A dance of witches and other raucous supernatural beings ("Double, double, toil and trouble"), a lush Verdi melody illustrating the arrival of Hecate, Goddess of the Night, and some stately brass declamations (resembling a snippet of the "Grand March" from Aida) are all packed into eleven minutes. The individual instrumental performances were fine, but the knitting together of parts into a whole seemed tentative in this performance. I felt that the orchestra was meeting this interesting work for the first time. One hopes it is programmed again another season when it might come totally together in a more convincing way.
Since returning to the United States after sixteen years as a principal French horn in Europe, Terry Roberts has added conducting to his work as soloist and orchestral musician. He is now the Music Director of the Florence (SC) Symphony and in demand as a soloist and chamber musician. On this program, he performed the Concerto No. 3 in E-flat, K.447, probably the most familiar and greatest of the four Mozart horn concerti. From the first notes of the opening Allegro, his intonation was flawless, and he maintained a beautiful tone during his graded crescendos. The Larghetto concluded with soloist and ensemble locked together in a beautiful embrace during the ritardando. The joyous "posting" sound of a hunt dominated a spotless final movement. Roberts is principal horn of the Asheville Symphony, and his colleagues accompanied him with affection and respect.
After intermission, we returned to Scotland for a world premiere. William Jackson is a distinguished harpist, the director of traditional Scottish ensembles, and the composer of contemporary Scottish music, including several crossover works that combine traditional instruments with symphony orchestra. Now resident in Asheville, Jackson was the logical choice to commission for this concert. The resulting "Fantasia on Scottish Themes" begins with a traditional Gaelic air ("Galley of Lorne") arranged for whistle, concertina, and fiddle. The clarsach (Scottish harp) picks up the lyrical theme and the orchestra joins in. The second section of the work is an up-tempo reel using an original theme in which the cittern (a variant on the mandolin) and the bodhran (a one-surface goatskin drum) join in. A piper marches in from the rear of the auditorium and a strathspey (a distinctly Scottish dance) is hinted at.
In a work such as this, a composer must decide whether to favor the traditional or simply hint at the traditional while observing classical forms. Bartók and Kodály tended to document the traditional Hungarian, Rumanian, and Transylvanian music in many of their works, and Jackson similarly favors Scottish idioms over the classical forms. If I were to find any fault in the composition, it would be that there never seems to be a musical rest during the nine minutes duration. I realize it is a major operation to shut off the bagpipes; one normally continues the drone and simply discontinues the chanter. But other instruments also play continuously in this work, a feature that is true to form in most traditional or folk music. I would be interested in hearing what Jackson might do if he tried composing more in the classical idiom, but with the added Gaelic instruments that he treats so well. He is a composer with a wealth of material and with self-assurance.
Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor ("Scottish") concluded the program. Here is a romantic symphony without any true Scottish tunes (according to Billy Jackson), but with a lot of use of "Scottish snap" (dotted rhythms) and other characteristics distilled from Scottish usage. Although the work is divided into the traditional four movements of a symphony, Mendelssohn instructs that the movements should follow each other without pause. The work could be described as a tone poem with eight sections. Meyer led the orchestra in a very satisfying performance with tempos that were right on the mark. The Vivace non troppo seemed to display youthful exuberance with a breakneck pace, but checking the score shows that the youthful exuberance was Mendelssohn's, not Meyer's. Or perhaps we should say that Daniel Meyer matches Felix Mendelssohn in youthful exuberance, which is a very good thing. This work showed the Asheville Symphony Orchestra at its current peak, with the self-assurance that comes to an orchestra confident that their conductor knows his business.