This past Saturday, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra made a more than welcome return to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, its first appearance the venue since before COVID-19 shutdowns took place in March of 2020. This triumphant return to their “home base” featured a program (led by Music Director Darko Butorac) containing one of the most symbolic journeys of victory, Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, op. 67. This performance also featured one of the first public appearances of the orchestra’s new executive director, Daniel M. Crupi.

Crupi began by welcoming the audience, thanking the performance sponsors, and introducing the first piece of the program, Errollyn Wallen‘s Mighty River. This performance marked the third time this piece has been performed in North America, and the first time in the American Southeast.

Mighty River was composed in 2007 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in England. Wallen eloquently describes the piece by saying, “Composing for the orchestra is my favorite challenge, and this work is an especially important one for me. It is an innate human instinct to be free, just as it is a law of nature that the river should rush headlong to the sea. That is the concept behind Mighty River.” It begins and ends with a simplistic solo English horn rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and the entirety is a fantasy on the hymn. Parts of it are reminiscent of Bedřich Smetana‘s The Moldau with its winding and intertwining melodic lines, and the ways that it weaves and winds throughout the piece. This piece was a truly pleasurable treat to hear performed live. Butorac led the orchestra through this rousing spiritual piece with innate passion. I can only wish the orchestra had a more dynamic effect to reflect the emotion in this piece, but it was still a beautiful opener to the program.

The concert also featured two guest artists, Alina Kobialka and Megan Lin, performing J. S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043. This was a perfect piece to follow Wallen’s Mighty River. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins is a piece nearly devoid of main musical lines. Instead, it dances and weaves with short musical phrases, almost like the two soloist violins were waltzing with each other. Kobialka and Lin portrayed this well, and it was a delight to see them perform side by side. They moved in sync, and Butorac did not intervene but instead kept a gentle hand on the tempo and interpretation.

The crowning jewel of this program was, of course, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. A piece of this magnitude is subject to heavy scrutiny, and any interpretational difference can and will be debated to the fullest extent. The opening four notes were played with power. The tempo sat in that sweet spot, quick enough to signify fate knocking on the door, and not slow enough to make the audience think otherwise. It stayed driving until the end, not relenting until the victorious end of the first movement. The second movement was exceptional, and Butorac did not shy away from the four-note motif that tends to hide itself within the instruments. It was noble and justified. The transition between the third and fourth movement was my favorite moment of the entire night. It is the figurative moment of our hero taking charge, and reigning victorious, a figurative sun emerging from the clouds. It is a sensitive moment that needs intention, and Butorac led the orchestra through this moment perfectly.

The concert was a beautiful program, and an even more beautiful with the return to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Keep an eye out for the rest of the performances the Asheville Symphony Orchestra has on the docket, including a greatly anticipated New Year’s performance featuring guest artists and a program of soul classics.