The Asheville Symphony journeyed to the heart of central Europe for its fifth Masterworks Concert at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Entitled “Czech This Out,” the program featured the Asheville Symphony’s own oboist Alicia Chapman as soloist in Bohuslav Martinů’s Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra, Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D (“Prague”), and three tone poems from Bedřich Smetana’s Má Vlast. Program sponsors were AT&T, Deal Motorcars of Asheville, Homewood Suites and Hotels, and The Real Yellow Pages.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, completed in December of 1786 and first performed in Prague, was his gift back to the city that truly loved him. Consisting only of three sonata-form movements, the work is also known as the “Symphony without Minuet,” although the second slower movement in a flowing triple meter (actually 6/8) could in some ways be considered a close stand-in. The first movement’s slow introduction, permeated by a terse, ornamental motive, eventually gives way to an agitated allegro section permeated with a syncopated rhythmic accompaniment similar to that of his D minor piano concerto. The work’s development section is heavily contrapuntal, featuring a canon at the seventh, then the second — so complex in fact that Mozart sketched out its inner workings in preliminary drafts. The orchestra’s rendition of the movement was elegant and beautifully balanced, laying transparent the inner workings of the lines. The second movement, a pastoral “Andante” complete with drones, is a play of contrasts between diatonic and chromatic writing, all introduced within the first four measures. The orchestra’s interpretation was cohesive and clear, with especially fine playing in the winds. The final “Presto,” though played adroitly and energetically, suffered a little from muted dynamic contrasts; especially lacking were the forte “explosions” one usually hears in this movement.

The stage was then reset for the Martinů concerto, scored for two flutes, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, strings, the solo oboe, and a piano, here placed in the middle of the ensemble. Chapman, currently an instructor of oboe, Director of the Collegium Musicum, and Coordinator of Woodwind Chamber Music at Appalachian State University, is principal oboist of the Asheville and Harrisburg PA Symphonies, and performs on English horn with the Greensboro Symphony. She is also an expert on the Baroque oboe, has written a method book for those modern performers wishing to try out the historical instrument, and performs regularly with Harmonia Baroque, an early instrument ensemble she co-founded. The performance of Martinu’s concerto, written in 1955 as a commissioned work from Czech oboist Jiri Tancibudek, was the first time the work had been heard in Asheville. The programming of a relatively obscure work, performed by one of the orchestra’s “own,” reflects Music Director Daniel Meyer’s admirable, on-going commitment to display the depth of talent within the ranks of his players while bringing us new music.

The work is one of the few concerti written for the oboe in the twentieth century, and is unusual for its range of influences (American jazz, French impressionism, and Czech folk music). Furthermore, the relationship between the oboe and the accompanying small orchestra is unique in the literature, often featuring the soloist in long, rhapsodic cadenzas with little or no accompaniment at all. The piano, played by John R. Crawley, eclipsed the other orchestral instruments in its prominence in the piece. The first movement’s lively orchestral introduction provides a marked contrast to the soloist’s entering cantabile melody. Once introduced, however, the soloist evolves, becoming increasingly animated as the movement progresses. The writing showcased the instrument’s range and tended to hang in the stratosphere, a high-wire act that Chapman executed beautifully. The slow, meditative movement (introduced by the horn) featured intimate exchanges or pairings of piano and oboe lines, to be dispelled by the driving, joyous third movement. The oboe, chameleon-like, wavered between the roles of pastoral song-spinner and jazz-inflected gobbler-of-all-possible-notes. Chapman’s performance was masterful and thoroughly musical throughout.

After intermission, the program concluded with three movements from Bedřich Smetana’s iconic cycle of six symphonic poems Má Vlast (My fatherland). “Vyšehrad” (the ancient royal castle) opens with the strumming of two harps, simulating the harp of the ancient bard, Lumir. A chorale-like theme emerges later which will reappear in Vltava” (The Moldau) like a shining vision of the ruin; agitated sections reference former musters for combat; trumpet fanfares further allude to the ancient glory of the revered site. Placed second in the program was ” Šárka,” a movement about the legendary Amazon heroine. Here Smetana retells the legend he depicted in music: [Šárka’s] “rage against men, her mortifications and wrath — the outcome of love’s betrayal — and her vow of vengeance,” her eventual entrapment and destruction of Ctirad and his soldiers at the hands of her army of women. Discordant sounds reflect the clash of forces, the horns the signal to massacre.

Concluding the concert was the most famous movement of the set, “Vltava,” the only one to combine actual landmarks with historical references. It begins with the two sources of the river depicted in a swirl of relentlessly winding sixteenth notes in the flutes, the flurry eventually subsumed by the broad theme of the river played by the violins. This colorful and endearing work was uniformly excellent throughout (especially the snappy polka and muted, moonlight portions), clearly a favorite of both players and audience alike.