The Asheville Symphony‘s Masterworks 7 concert, the last in their 2015-16 season, played to all the strengths of this remarkable orchestra. Under the direction of Daniel Meyer, the program featured Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, Dvořák’s iconic standard Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (“From the New World”), and a sparkling new cello concerto co-commissioned by a consortium (including this orchestra) of Michael Daugherty‘s Tales of Hemingway. Daugherty composed the work for world-renown cellist Zuill Bailey, who performed as soloist with Daugherty in attendance.

Bailey performed with the Asheville Symphony in November of 2007, and deeply impressed this critic with his consummate technical prowess, interpretive skill, and rapport with the audience. While his career extends internationally to various solo and chamber music venues and includes a notable list of recordings, he has enduring ties to North Carolina with his series of appearances and recordings with the North Carolina Symphony. He is currently Professor of cello at the University of Texas-El Paso where he is artistic director of the El Paso Pro-Musica.

The program opener was the Overture to Der Freischütz, a delightful blend of romantic melodiousness, sinister evocations, and orchestral colorings. Weber’s opera of 1821 was a seminal work in the canon of German romantic-era opera, and one can appreciate how it must have appealed to its audience with its dual stylistic components of German folk song and “high art.” Meyer and the orchestra capitalized on the work’s dramatic components in this finely-nuanced performance. In particular, the prominent horn section, symbolic of the opera’s heroic huntsman Max, was finely blended, and the clarinet solos beautifully played.

The crown jewel of the concert was the performance of Daugherty’s four-movement concerto based on four separate Hemingway novels. Meyer’s careful direction and obvious, emotional investment in the piece produced many of the evening’s finest moments. As the composer revealed to the Nashville Scene in an interview, “Hemingway was a natural choice for me because I’ve always identified with his style. His writing is direct and accessible. And it flows beautifully because Hemingway always knew exactly when to omit and repeat things. The choice to write a cello concerto seemed obvious because Hemingway studied cello as a kid. He didn’t like lessons, but he later admitted that music informed his sense of rhythm as a writer.”

The sureness of Daugherty’s concept was borne out within each movement, some overtly technical in the cello part, others more in line with the evocative nature of character pieces. In movement one, “Big Two-Hearted River,” the healing power of nature was explored through Nick Adams’s trip to Northern Michigan. Bailey projected effortlessly its beautiful melodies sprinkled with dissonant notes, while the orchestra furnished their color-filled backdrop. The inspiration for movement two, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” centered around demolition expert Robert Jordan who is fated to die on his suicide mission to destroy a bridge held by enemy Fascists. The strident music, a frenzied march, was highly suggestive of the action of the novel; a distorted “Dies Irae” was quoted again and again as a reference to the ultimate outcome of war. The execution of this movement was masterfully incisive, and frankly terrifying.

Movement three, “an elegy to the struggle of life and death between man and nature” as played out in “The Old Man and the Sea,” was breathtaking in its soul-filled, searching nature. The contrast of its quiet beginning and ending with its central boisterous section was well marked. The last movement, based on “The Sun Also Rises,” was totally evocative of exotic Spain. Bailey alternately bowed, then strummed his cello like a guitar. The panoply of percussion instruments and rhythmically-oriented, syncopated writing woven into its tension-filled narrative made this movement a thrilling closer to this great concerto. The audience loved it and rose to its feet in a resounding ovation.

Following intermission came the Dvořák symphony – certainly a symphonic standard and crowd pleaser. That said, in programming it one possibly runs the risk of boring the listeners with something that’s so familiar. I’ve heard the Asheville Symphony play this work numerous times – they must feel like they can play it in their sleep – and yet this performance sounded like a fresh reading of an old friend. Following its solemn opening phrases, the piece really took off in the Allegro molto section with newly-infused energy, only to ebb and flow as the music decreed.

The second movement was notable for its opening, sumptuous chorale-like chords in the brass, and the various wind solos (kudos to the English horn) with the orchestral accompaniment carefully balanced out of their way. The rhythmic intricacies underscoring movement three in the character of a ceremonial Indian dance gave this orchestra no trouble at all, with only a brief rest before the magnificent brass fanfares opening movement four. Here, I clearly heard the inner workings of the various parts as deftly executed as any of the foreground material. Meyer has obviously worked his magic with this marvelous orchestra, and is to be congratulated for his unparalleled commitment to its artistic excellence.