I was warned to come early to the Hendersonville Symphony’s concert, as there’s general seating in Blue Ridge Community College’s Conference Hall and people tend to show up early. Sure enough, thirty minutes before the concert the house was nearly full. The program, under the direction of Maestro Thomas Joiner, was sponsored by First Citizens Bank, Morrow Insurance Agency, Inc., Biltmore Beacon, and Morris Broadband. Thomas Shepherd and Son sponsored the guest artist.

Although the “Music in Nature” program alone would have been enough to attract a weather-weary crowd, the real draw was Kyle Decker, a high school junior and winner of the annual Young Artist Concerto Competition, performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A student of Jesslynn Kitts of Flat Rock, this young man, also an accomplished percussionist, was recently awarded first place in the Carolina Youth Symphony’s Young Artists Concerto Competition. HSO Concerto Competition Second Place Winner Kay Nakazawa, violin, and Third Place Winner Vashti Baluch, piano, were introduced along with Decker at intermission.

The program began with Ottorino Respighi’s Gli Uccelli (“The Birds”), a programmatic suite of movements transcribed for the most part from early works for keyboard. Framed by a prelude and coda, both of which contain the themes of the suite’s movements, the internal pieces are charming caricatures. “The Dove,” derived from a theme by Jacques de Gallot, is a plaintive, sarabande-like piece that featured beautiful solos from oboe, clarinet, and violin. The comical and energetic “The Hen,” from Rameau’s “La Poule,” brought to the fore energetic staccatos and some of the suite’s most colorful orchestrations. The barnyard subsides in the lovely, murmuring “The Nightingale,” that began with a low wavering cello obbligato which, unfortunately, competed with the heating system and sometimes was indistinguishable from it. “The Cuckoo” allows all the winds in on the fun of trading “cuckoos” about against the buzzing figuration in the strings.  

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was given pride of place just before intermission. Decker did an admirable job with this challenging solo. He performed with the rhythmic precision of a percussionist, was sensitively in tune with the many mood and tempo changes, and obviously had great feeling for the piece. His finger work was impressive — clean without extraneous movements. What will come in time is a weightier presence and a more powerful tone where required. Bravo!

After intermission came another installment in the HSO’s project to perform all Beethoven symphonies over five years. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), a work remarkably similar to one by Justin Heinrich Knecht composed roughly 25 years prior, was his well-known experiment with depicting feelings pertaining to nature. The title page bears the inscription, “More an expression of feeling than tone painting,” lest we miss his point. Among the principal feelings he explores are relaxation, reverence, joy, and fright. And yet, the programmatic touches are still there — bird calls, murmuring brooks, a thunderstorm, yodeling, and drones associated with a comical off-beat peasant band that can’t quite get it together — as though Beethoven couldn’t completely tear himself away from these powerfully evocative, aural images.

The first movement Allegro ma non troppo, meant to reflect the “awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country,” is expansive with a deliberately slow-paced unfolding of events. The orchestra played this movement with the warmest, fullest string sounds of the evening, though intonation problems in the high registers, though spotty, were evident. Harmonies linger, phrases repeat incessantly, the movement is slow to generate a sense of direction — which is why too slow a tempo can turn the work to lead, as happened. The tempo of the second movement Andante molto mosso, “scene by the brook,” was too similar to that of the first, thus muting the intended characterization. The strings were kept busy with murmuring figurations, while the winds emerged with some nice solos (kudos to clarinet, flute, bassoon, and oboe). The third movement Allegro, “merry gathering of country folk,” was well done with a lusty tempo and colorful horn solos, as was the dramatic “thunderstorm” that constituted the fourth movement Allegro. With the fifth movement Allegretto, “shepherd’s song; happy and thankful feelings after the storm,” a return was made to the peaceful, bucolic feelings of the first movement. Unfortunately here, too, I felt the orchestra took up the first leaden tempo and things just went on too long.

In an age where orchestras are struggling to stay alive, it’s clear from the large turnout that the Hendersonville Symphony is a much beloved regional orchestra. The problem looming in their future — that they may have outgrown their hall — is a good one to have.