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The Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Joiner, Music Director and Conductor, was joined by five guest artists from the Flat Rock Playhouse in staging a Gershwin Extravaganza that was a strange mixture of delightful professionalism and Sunday-school pageant incompetence.
To begin with, HSO President Donald Hupe came on stage to “say a few words.” Totally blah blah. It is enough to recognize sponsors in the program. Hupe, a cellist who had to audition in order to play with the HSO, was totally unpracticed at the microphone: jeers and calls of “Louder” from the audience twice interrupted his “few words.” Once we could hear him, he urred and ummed his way lamely through what he had to say. While this stand-up routine contributes nothing to the evening, if it is found necessary again, the working board of the HSO needs to audition someone to do it. Even better would be to eliminate all this small-town stuff.
Then a color guard marched in. I think that was not well-rehearsed either, judging from the lack of dramatic effect and missed cues. Now I’m as patriotic as the next reasonable person; I cried tears of pride when I visited Fort McHenry earlier this year, I actually know the words and the tune to our national anthem, and I put my hand over my heart and sing right lustily when called to do so. And I have the firm conviction that the Symphony can and should play without quite so much jingle jangle jingo.
Not soon enough the actual stuff we came to hear got off to a splendid start with "An American In Paris." There was a nice little dialog in stretto between the xylophone and winds. Gershwin merged auto horns and jazz bands into the lushness of the symphony orchestra. The HSO has what it takes to put swing into their orchestral playing. The tuba solo was excellent and the squeeze-bulb horns sounded just like clarinets; or was it the other way around!
After this totally professional performance, there was a Shakespearian interlude (I think they call it the farce) of incredible incompetence while the fat lady (I thought she was supposed to sing last) and a bunch of volunteers from the orchestra came to loggerheads about the arrangement of the stage. There was only one working stagehand trying to move the concert grand piano to the front of the stage while the faffing brigade argued, moved stuff haphazardly then moved it to a different place. Then the poor dogsbody who was playing the role of Bottom the Piano Mover came out and moved all the stuff that the manager-lady had just placed and began to single handedly roll the piano to the front of the stage and the chasm of the front row. A very slightly-built young orchestra player came to the rescue. When he put his brakes on to stop Black Juggernaught, his patent-leather dancing pumps were slippin’ n slidin’ on the stage like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon. In retrospect, this was the best comedy of the evening. Where was Anna Russell when they needed her?
Now let’s get serious — because Derek Parsons, piano, and the orchestra turned out a seriously excellent "Rhapsody in Blue." The opening piano solo was rich, precise and powerful. The clarinet solo and the trumpet wahwah were perfectly crafted, with the wail of the jazz band and the careful intonation of the professional symphonic player. Gershwin’s piano part could only have been written by a piano player, as he was, with its passages reminiscent of Scarlatti’s hand crossing period; Parsons was the sure master of it all. The piano and orchestra were well-balanced. The "Rhapsody" isn’t to my taste very blue, and Joiner provided plenty of pep.
Parsons and the orchestra got a standing ovation and a thunderous round of applause from the spring-loaded seats in the Hendersonville High School auditorium.
Oscar Wilde said that life is too important to take seriously. Gershwin’s music confirms the idea. Here’s a stage full of serious musicians, having practiced seriously, playing seriously a serious composition, and what we hear is a celebration of life and love in the '20s and '30s, as fresh today as when new.
After intermission, the orchestra returned accompanied by Scott Treadway as master of ceremonies. His role, except when he was singing, was that of buffoon. He supervised a chaos of verbal and sight gags about the arrangement of the stage that were as funny as the earlier interlude, with the added benefit of being intended to be funny. Treadway shuffled and rearranged the mikes and wires just as the other crew had struggled with the chairs and stands. The music then began with a rousing "Strike Up the Band" by full orchestra including brass section. This was interrupted by a one-woman brassy section, big-voiced Klea Blackhurst, Merman revivalist extraordinaire, who came up on stage from the audience and got in Maestro Joiner's face. She and Treadway delivered a fine “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Next the lovely Emily Drennan did a dreamy “Embraceable You,” with a dance interlude with Treadway. Teddy Eck did an equally dreamy “Someone To Watch over Me.” Blackhurst returned to sing “I’ve Got Rhythm;” Merman’s art lives! Drennan showed her talent for warm and tender singing in “Our Love Is Here To Stay” with her perfect vocal match, Teddy Eck. It was a wonderful duet. Martin Houghtaling, principal bassist with HSO, joined Drennan for “Slap that Bass.” Although this is less suited to her than the other gentler pieces, she made up for it with superb body language. Blackhurst sang “Sam and Delilah” and “A Foggy Day.” The concert closed with the four singers and “Stiff Upper Lip.”
The orchestra matched them in excellence. I hope that Gershwin is serious enough that no one felt like this was a pops concert; the enthusiasm and pleasure of the entire audience was very obvious.