The Asheville Symphony performed its Frighteningly Delightful Halloween Celebration in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, giving the nod to the macabre with Florent Schmitt‘s La tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50, and Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, Op. 40. After intermission the program concluded with Johannes Brahms’ Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102. Daniel Meyer conducted, with soloists Jason Posnock, violin, and Alistair MacRae, cello. Associate Concertmaster Martha Gardner sat first chair in Concertmaster Posnock’s absence.

What seemed promising at the outset turned to disappointment as this fine orchestra appeared to have an off night. The program opened with Saint-Saëns’ familiar diabolical waltz, which Meyer held in check to such a degree that the piece sounded more pedantic than fun. A bright spot was the fine playing of Gardner. With her top string tuned down half a step to create the famous “devilish” interval of the tritone on her two top open strings, she played with a ravishingly beautiful tone in her many solos.

Next came the Schmitt tone poem, a work originally composed in 1907 as a ballet based on a poem by Robert d’Humières, then revised in 1910 as a tone poem for full orchestra. The poem is actually a suite in five movements, each of them related to the Biblical story of Salomé, though the composer played fast and loose with the horrific events as portrayed in other works and musical settings, most notably Richard Strauss’s opera Salome. Meyer explained to the audience in his pre-concert talk that Stravinsky had said if it weren’t for his having heard this work, he never would have composed his famous Rite of Spring ballet. Indeed, one could clearly hear Schmitt’s predilection for polyrhythms, driving rhythms and dissonant harmonies, hallmarks of Stravinsky’s style, and even more clearly the influences of Debussy’s La Mer in the “sea music” sections of Schmitt’s score.

While the orchestra gave this seldom-heard work a credible reading, the music itself, for all its colorful elements, failed to be memorable, and I kept thinking that the music would have been helped greatly by the visual element of dance as originally conceived. Most notable in this performance were the many solos emanating from the wind section, along with the fine section playing in the brass and strings. Soprano Amanda Horton supplied the eerie vocalizations off-stage during the sea music section, another link to Debussy’s sea sirens.

After intermission came the evening’s heavyweight, the Brahms Double Concerto. Soloists Posnock and MacRae have been heard many times by local audiences at the Brevard Music Center where they both perform and where Posnock is the Director of Artistic Planning and Educational Programs. Among many other positions each artist holds, Posnock is the Asheville Symphony Concertmaster, while MacRae serves as the Principal Cello of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.

The interesting fact about the concerto’s composition is that Brahms wrote it in 1887 as a sort of peace offering to his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim, after Brahms took the side of Joachim’s wife during their contentious divorce. The cello part was written for Robert Hausmann, cellist of Joachim’s quartet, for whom Brahms had promised to write a cello concerto. While it does not put pyrotechnics front and center, there are still many technical and musical challenges in this piece – after all, it’s still Brahms and still a concerto. The maintaining of its dominant, intense emotional pathos over lengthy stretches is especially difficult.

Meyer did a masterful job of directing the orchestra in this work, and the orchestra responded in kind with finely nuanced playing. The soloists were at their best when “finishing each other’s sentences” – i.e., trading phrases, and in portraying the many mood swings over the course of the work. The challenges where when they were playing together, but not always matching pitches. Occasionally the sheer beauty of their sounds was lost in music that sounded worked and sometimes even strident. The reception varied, with some members of the audience standing in an ovation while others politely clapped.