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This concert will stick in my memory for a long time – not only was the program interesting, the violin soloist captivating, the orchestra memorable and the conductor dynamic, but the hall was packed! Over 2000 people, of all ages, including teenagers and young adults, filled the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium of the U.S. Cellular Center complex (capacity 2430) for the closing concert of the 2018-19 Masterworks season of the Asheville Symphony under the direction of its new Music Director, Maestro Darko Butorac.
The concert started with the infectious rhythm of the "2, 3 clave"* of the popular Danzón No. 2 by the contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Márquez (born in 1950). This danzón begins modestly with only claves and piano accompanying a solo clarinet. Eventually the oboe joins the dance while the strings strum along. The tempo picks up gradually while new instruments join the dance until finally everybody is moving along very quickly. At one moment the conductor shifts smoothly into overdrive, and the dance starts all over again until again it reaches a feverish pitch and ends in a short exciting coda. Apart from a patch of fuzzy intonation in the lower brass and woodwinds, this was an impeccably clean performance which brought cheers from the audience.
Camille Saint-Saëns is one of the most under-rated composers France has produced, and certainly one of the most played! His Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61 is a staple of the violin repertory, exceeded only by his Introduction and Rondo-Capriccioso, Op. 28 in popularity. Our young soloist was the rising star, Simone Porter, who delivered a powerful performance of the concerto. The audience burst into enthusiastic applause at the end of the first movement, only to be enthralled by the sensuous intimacy of her pure clean tone and outstanding intonation in the second movement, Andantino. Oboist Alicia Chapman added some fine solos to round out the movement. The third movement begins dramatically with an accompanied cadenza in a distant key and includes some violinistic pyrotechniques and a brilliant coda which brought the cheering audience to its feet again!
After intermission the audience was treated to a clean and brisk performance of Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), one of the most difficult works of the orchestral repertory. This was an impressive performance from the start, where an absurdly high-pitched bassoon precariously establishes a mood of mysterious foreboding. Eventually, a repetitious rhythmic ostinato takes over, punctuated by savage accents. The first half of the two-part ballet score ends in a wild mixed-meter "Dance of the Earth" ending in a blackout of the lights in the auditorium, an effect which caught all by surprise and effectively suppressed premature applause. After a brief pause the lights returned and the second half, "The Sacrifice," opened with mysterious chords, followed by interlacing muted trumpets and bouncing bows in the strings which lead to the infamous eleven identical pounding chords (11/4) which prepare the "Chosen One" for her sacrifice. Described by Stravinsky himself as "pictures from pagan Russia," this is primal music, abounding in raw rhythms and confounding dissonances, all played with obstinate insistence and provocative repetition.
The audience was again on its feet with a roar, exhibiting enthusiasm for the performance, the orchestra, and the new maestro who had just led a masterful performance. Special bows were awarded the principal bassoon, alto flute, and bass clarinets, and deservedly so. The exceptionally large orchestra called for by the composer had played an exceptionally fine performance of an exceptionally difficult piece and this exceptional audience knew it!
*A repeated rhythm played by the "claves," a pair of thick wooden sticks; the term also refers to a continuously repeated rhythm eight beats long which begins with strokes on beats 2 and 3 followed usually by a stroke on beat 5 and a syncopated stroke after beat 6.