As a member of the large audience in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Saturday evening, I was looking forward to a fine concert, fully expecting the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and its excellent music director and conductor, Daniel Meyer, to offer a performance as technically brilliant as those I recalled from my pre-Raleigh days. Instead, I experienced one of the biggest musical surprises of my concert-going life. For their opening concert of this year’s Masterworks series, Meyer and his excellent instrumentalists showed me what I have been missing in my four years in Raleigh. Meyer’s choice of repertoire included some of the most dazzling music of the nineteenth and twentieth century. The technical demands of this music and the manner in which conductor, players and guest piano soloist exceeded these demands provided an evening of musical excitement and impeccable beauty.

The opening number on the program was “Lollapalooza” (1995), composed by John Adams (b.1947). This composition, a birthday gift to conductor Simon Rattle, is a rollicking piece the title of which might well describe the level of excitement of all the music in this concert. Adams’ central motive, a perfect musical and rhythmic setting of the title, allows him to develop this bit of music into many varied restatements in all the sections of the orchestra, permitting the audience to enjoy the brilliance of instrumentation conceived by the composer and realized by the players.

For his second piece Meyer chose the Piano Concerto in G, composed in 1931 by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). This delightful work is a potpourri of blues, jazz melody and harmony, and syncopated rhythms thoroughly mixed with Ravel’s beloved French Baroque influences and a clear allusion to Mozart’s clarinet quintet. It is the richest of pleasures to mentally chase all the influences from the rich history of music Ravel knows so completely.

The piano soloist for the Ravel was the superb Simone Dinnerstein, a graduate of Juilliard, where she was a student of Peter Serkin. She has also been a student of several world-renowned pianists in New York and London. The many reviewers of her recordings and her concert appearances have frequently spoken warmly of her elegance as a player, and this admirable quality was quite obvious.  She also is exquisitely attuned to the many nuances of the music and the unity between the piano and the players in all sections of the orchestra.  Her technique is formidable, no matter whether she is playing long, delicate glissandos, intricately rhythmic material, or powerful, energetic passagework which causes listeners to sit on the edge of their seats.

The three movements of Ravel’s concerto offer an audience all the musical delights I have mentioned, and some of which I haven’t. The first movement, allegramente,introduces the predominant light-heartedness characteristic of the entire work. It begins with the snap of a whip and delightful melody introduced by the piccolo and taken up by the trumpet, all of which is accompanied by long, delicate piano arpeggios. Then Ravel introduces a contrasting second theme which recalls blues melody and rhythms, especially in a superb clarinet solo. The piano, however, with its jazzy melodies and syncopated rhythms, dominates the music in this movement. The adagio second movement is characterized by a seemingly unending melody in the piano, during which Dinnerstein holds the attention of her audience as her grasp of Ravel’s increasingly difficult melody seems to extend itself until it finally resolves into the many voices of the orchestra. The presto third movement is an exercise in virtuosity by all the musicians on the stage, especially the soloist, whose part reminds one of the many repeated notes of a Baroque toccata but is in reality punctuated by jazz riffs and blue notes in the winds. The last bit of music in the concerto recalls the spirited opening of the first movement and brings the work to a breathtaking conclusion.

The Asheville Symphony’s final work of the evening was the great Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64, of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93). Like most of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works, this one is a mixture of somber themes and brilliant orchestration, neither of which tire the ears of the many audiences who have heard this symphony since its first performance in St. Petersburg in 1888. The rich, brilliant orchestral color of this symphony appeals both to orchestras and audiences today, especially when the exacting, often passionate conducting of a man of Daniel Meyer’s gifts is on the podium and is able to communicate all his musical desires to musicians of high caliber, such as the instrumentalists of the Asheville Symphony.

This work does not release its musical appeal on listeners until it concludes in a dynamic finale. Its somber motto is stated in the introduction and reappears several times throughout the symphony. Although many critics have suggested that the somber tone pervading the work could be based on the musical expression of a personal agenda in the mind if the composer, I and other musicians find enjoyment in the music without consideration of any extra-musical material. The brilliance of the orchestration, the somber, contemplative thematic material, and rhythmic excitement are the elements of this symphony which have spoken to audiences throughout the decades.  The music of the first movement, with its march theme, has a quality of the relentless in it, and it’s quite different second theme is made up of a collection of orchestrated musical sighs which cause audiences to wonder how many ways musicians have to express something so simple. The second movement, andante cantabile, is known for its great horn theme and a second theme, somewhat more animated, for solo oboe, but all of this great lyricism is preceded by forbidding opening phrases in the double-basses. The whimsical third movement, a waltz based on a popular street melody, lifts the audience out of a somber mood.  The final movement, finale andante maestoso, presents again the dark motto of the opening, followed by a passage shifting between E major and E minor, perhaps between darkness and light, and a spirited tempo moves the music toward the symphony’s conclusion.

The ending of this excellent concert allowed all of us in the enthusiastic audience to express prolonged appreciation for the great music we had heard, and to realize, once again, the ability of the Asheville Symphony and the conductor whose talent and insistence on quality performance of all its players will provide even more musical success in the year ahead. For details, see our calendar.