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The Asheville Symphony's second Masterworks concert in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium transported the audience on a journey-themed adventure which included a festival (Dvořák's "Carnival Overture," Op. 92), then venturing to a crossroads where East meets West (Dinuk Wijeratne's Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra with soloist Sandeep Das), and finally to Russia (Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64). Directing the orchestra was guest conductor Rei Hotoda, the first of six finalists to audition during this season for the position of the orchestra's next music director. Jason Posnock served as concertmaster.
There has been a plethora of publicity about ASO's search for a new conductor and the six individuals who've made it this far, so the atmosphere in the hall was understandably brimming with excitement. Hotoda, the only female finalist, is an impressive conductor – elegant, poised, emotionally charged, vastly experienced, and technically adroit. Her physical gestures – cueing, and interpreting – never encroached or distracted from the music. When she addressed the audience, her face beamed with the joy of doing what she's trained so hard to do – lead fine orchestras to play great music. She has said in interviews that she is not afraid of taking risks by choosing new or experimental music, and for many of us in the audience, Wijeratne's tabla concerto was an entirely new musical experience. If Hotoda is eventually chosen to be the ASO's new music director, Asheville is in for a real treat.
The program began with Dvořák's "Carnival Overture," a concert staple, but with its opening played at brinkmanship speed before things slowed and expanded a bit with the second lyrical theme. The blistering tempo reappeared with the recurrence of the opening material, evoking once again a desperate sort of gaiety not out of keeping with the character of Carnival celebrations. The conductor bowed graciously to the audience with a smile and a mien of "Voilà!" to thunderous applause.
The instruments had barely cooled before Das took the stage for the tabla concerto. Das, one of the world's greatest tabla players, has performed world-wide and worked for global understanding using the tools of performance and education. He is probably best known as a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (SRE), a group that garnered a Grammy Award for best world music album with Sing Me Home. He was entirely absorbed by the music he played and was utterly fascinating just to watch. The tabla are two drums of different sizes played by every part of each hand, each producing a different voice from the instruments. They have become one of the most familiar "exotic" sounds to Western audiences in pop music, film music, and world music fusion.
This piece is one of the richest new works I've heard in recent years. Its composer, Sri Lanka-born pianist, conductor, and tabla virtuoso, Wijeratne (b. 1978) grew up in Dubai, studied music in the UK, USA and Canada, and now is based in Canada. He composed the concerto in 2011, blending eastern and western elements in a fusion of world-music styles.
The first movement, entitled, "Canons, Circles" opened mysteriously with two violins in imitation of one another, a device which spread to the rest of the orchestra in an imitative web. At the core was the tabla soloist, who spun complex rhythms in cyclical patterns. The second movement was one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces I've ever heard. If ever music had the power to take you to exotic places, this was it. The rhythmic propulsion of the first movement had stilled into a more sedate accompaniment in "dheepchandhi," a rhythmic cycle of 14 beats, to the folk song played by the orchestra entitled "White in the moon the long road lies (that leads me from my love)." The last movement entitled "Garland of Gems" was a real tour de force of Das' flying drumming hands and recitation of rhythmic syllables, sometimes in alternation and sometimes simultaneously, to orchestral accompaniment. As melodic fragments became even more distilled into motives, repeated over and over, one fell into a trance as time seemed suspended. The audience rose in ovation in tribute to this great performance.
After intermission came the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5. It's odd to contemplate the composer's insecurity about this piece, as now it's central to the standard orchestral repertoire. This audience sat in rapt attention as movement one's somber Andante, played broadly with maximum expressiveness, morphed into an Allegro con anima. As the moods (and tempi) continually fluctuated, the conductor was in full control of every transition, making each seamlessly. The second movement Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza featured the gorgeous playing of principal hornist Jeffery Whaley in the opening, wistful solo. Later the movement flowered into more and more activity, growing in urgency as other instruments offered their solos in turn, building to thundering declamatory statements, perhaps the composer's own wrestling with issues of faith and fate.
The diversionary third movement is a languid Waltz, the colors of which are reminiscent of much of his ballet music. The finale was a rousing closer to this mammoth symphony, though the trumpets were clearly tired by the movement's end. None-the-less, the audience was immediately on their feet in cheers for this deeply moving performance and the great musical intelligence of Hotoda.