Daniel Meyer, Music Director of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, generally avoids “themed” programs. He doesn’t want so much uniformity in the works that consistency turns into monotony. But this Masterworks concert definitely had a theme: the four works were by three 20th century American composers who embraced tonal music, and the overall effect was far from monotonous. These three composers were active at a time when Second Viennese School twelve-tone music was ascendant among music theorists, and composers who didn’t pay homage to atonality were scorned by many powerful figures in the academic music world. In varying degrees, they survived, and all three constitute an important chapter in the development of music in the American century.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is often called the “Dean of American Composers.” He was successful with audiences after 1936, when he embraced tonality and began using folk tunes as source material. (His youthful works had been radical and often atonal, and in truth he continued to use his own adaptation of twelve-tone style as part of his broad palette of compositional tools.) His popularity was helped by his decision to write for theatre, film and ballet. The first half of this concert consisted of two of Copland’s works adapted from film and ballet.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was a dramatic success when presented in 1938, and the film version was released in 1940 with a score by Copland. He later wrote a careful adaptation for the concert stage. This is appropriately subdued music that matches the thematic content of the play. There was a disturbing amount of coughing during the quiet early passages. Perhaps the audience (an almost full house) was having allergic reactions to the wildfire smoke that has haunted Asheville this week. If one ignored the audience noise, the performance left nothing to be desired, with the muted brass and English horn parts being particularly well played. The ASO musicians sustained the long lines, marking the continuity of life.

Those who have seen the ballet cannot experience the Suite from the ballet Billy the Kid without remembering tongue-in-cheek scenes of bowlegged dancers simulating a long day in the saddle, and cowboys picking their way through a field of dead bodies after the famous gunfight. The suite is shorter than the full ballet music, but contains the chief elements of the narrative, which begins and ends on the open prairie. The music cleverly uses traditional Mexican, cowboy and other folk elements. Dramatic tension is added by having these motifs clash at times. The gunfight featured excellent work by timpani and percussion players in the asynchronous “gun shots.”

Following intermission, the orchestra presented David Diamond‘s Symphony No.4. Like all of Diamond’s work, it is tightly written, all muscle and no fat, with a decidedly American stamp. I knew this composer in the 1970’s in Rochester, NY (where he lived almost his entire life from 1915 to 2005) and can testify that he was outspoken and as direct as his music. Being openly gay long before that was socially acceptable, he believed that his career had suffered from anti-Semitism and anti-gay discrimination. In the last three decades of his life, excellent recordings by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerhard Schwartz finally brought his music out of the shadows and only now, following his death, is he being fully appreciated. Symphony No. 4 is written for a large orchestra. I commend the Asheville Symphony for the decision to use Diamond’s intended full instrumentation. (Hal Leonard offers a version for reduced orchestra, which would have saved the orchestra money.) We experienced an augmented orchestra, with three oboes and an English horn, four bassoons, three clarinets and a bass clarinet, four flutes, two harps, four trumpets and the other resources as Diamond intended. The third movement has an ingenious intricate version of a brass fanfare that apparently left the audience enthralled, as there was a warm reception to this work. We can hope to hear more David Diamond at future concerts.

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is an iconic American composition, embracing jazz melded to European compositional style. Originally scored for piano and small jazz orchestra, it was then revised for full symphony orchestra. The brilliant young pianist Conrad Tao (from Chicago but now New York-based) made his first Asheville Symphony Orchestra appearance as soloist. He has previously been in the area two summers at the Brevard Music Festival.

For the last thirty or more years, my benchmark for this piece has been Earl Wild with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. I have a new benchmark now. Tao has all the brilliant technique that Wild famously displayed, but (a composer as well as a pianist) Tao displays more thought in his interpretation. He bent the rhythms at times, showing his mastery of jazz style without disturbing his rapport with the accompanying orchestra. He found connections and bridges that I had been unaware of, observed pauses that emphasized the importance of silence in the midst of music, and generally convinced the audience that this was a performance to remember.

After a standing ovation, Tao returned with a solo encore: the difficult “Matribute” by Elliott Carter, the third of three pieces in a suite entitled Tri-Tribute. Only a pianist without fear of making errors (which I’m sure occurred) would attempt this work. Tao exemplified what Copland was talking about when he said, “Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps subconsciousness. I wouldn’t know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.”

Three great American composers, an American conductor, and an American pianist with our own Asheville Symphony Orchestra. The concert was an all-American celebration.