The Asheville Symphony Orchestra (led by music director and conductor Darko Butorac) returned to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium for the first time in 2022 for an exceptional program of music celebrating Black composers and the American sound. Featuring Will Marion Cook, George Gershwin, Antonín Dvořák, and William Grant Still, the programmed music provided a snapshot into 1920s New York and the bustling golden age American dream. Burial Beer Company and Hatchworks Coworking sponsored the concert and the guest artist respectively, along with the numerous music sponsors.

Will Marion Cook’s In Dahomey is regarded as the first Black-produced, composed, and performed musical on the Broadway stage. The overture from said musical opened the night’s program and is comprised wholly of songs and themes from the musical. Excitingly enough, Butorac announced to the audience that the night’s performance was almost certainly the first performance by an American symphony orchestra of this overture; Butorac arranged the parts from a piano score for a full symphony orchestra. Knowing this, there was something personal about how Butorac approached the orchestra. Every different theme and section were sanctioned off dynamically and expressively, with a beautiful balance in between instrument families.

George Gershwin, though not Black, did break barriers in the sense that he introduced the jazz sound into concert halls and classical environments where it was frowned upon. One such piece that broke these barriers was his Rhapsody in Blue, regarded as the first jazz piano concerto. The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue took place on February 12, 1924 – 98 years ago to the date of this performance by the ASO. Xiayin Wang was the featured soloist. An accomplished pianist, Wang’s performance was one of the highlights of the night. I was amazed by her articulations and attention to detail, along with her ability to make notated music sound improvised, enhancing the jazz aspect. Additionally, Wang possesses a masterful ability to carve out melodies within heavily textured sections. The singular disappointment of this piece was the iconic glissando theme played by the clarinet in the beginning of the piece. It presented as choppy and unsettling when it should be effortless and improvisatory.

It is fitting for Dvořák to be included in the program considering he aided in pioneering the American idiom in a classical environment. Dvořák was a champion for inclusion of Native American and African American music, claiming that should be the basis for the American sound. His Symphony No. 9 (colloquially known as the “New World Symphony”) is inspired by African American spirituals. The second movement Largo was my favorite moment of the performance. Pieces that seem simple become the most difficult to perform convincingly, and the ASO executed this with ease: the opening melody was utterly sublime. The dynamics were delicate and sensitive, lighter than other interpretations that sink the melody into the textures of the orchestra.

The culmination of the night was none other than William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, or his “Afro-American Symphony.” The piece features a recurring blues theme in all movements, marking this symphony as one of the first to feature a blues theme so heavily. Each of the four movements are described by their subtitles: “Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor,” and “Aspirations.” Each of the four movements fully immerse the listener into their corresponding emotions; what makes this symphony so fantastic is the camouflaging of the original blues theme. ASO’s interpretation was exceptional, featuring every various texture present in the orchestration.

This program was, in a word, exceptional. The pieces on the program were balanced and complementary to one another. When an American symphony orchestra plays American compositions, something incredible happens. It’s so much more nuanced, and there’s an unspoken understanding that this is our music. During a month celebrating and remembering Black culture and history, this performance was a beautiful display of a uniquely American idiom that I hope is given more recognition in the years to come.