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The Asheville Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Daniel Meyer, concluded its 2013 – 2014 season with a dynamic program of music by two of Russia's greatest 20th century composers. Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, a popular staple of the orchestral repertoire, was no surprise. With its pleasing melodies and virtuosic fireworks, it only seemed fitting to conclude the season with this crowd pleaser, especially with virtuoso Mariangela Vacatello at the keyboard. What was more shocking, however, was the programming of Dmitri Shostakovich's controversial Symphony No. 11. Written more than half a century after the Rachmaninoff concerto, the symphony is essentially a four-movement representation of the infamous "Bloody Sunday" of January 9, 1905, when the Tsar's army massacred a peaceful petition by civilians with Marxist ideologies. The ASO and Meyer should be applauded for ending the season with such a dramatically intense work of art – which Meyer described in his concert preface as a "grim piece of Soviet music."
The famous opening chords of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto are one of those instantly recognizable motives in the canon, like the introductory "fate" motive of Beethoven's fifth symphony or the solo bassoon melody at the beginning of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The educated audience can almost hear these thunderous sonorities played before a single note is even struck. Vacatelli's interpretation demonstrated her wide dynamic range at the piano. She introspectively played the first few chords and answering octaves in the bass register with an ominous whisper before unleashing a glorious crescendo into the cascading arpeggios. The strings, perfectly balanced with Vacatelli, provided an expansive backdrop to her florid embellishment of the main theme. The transition to the second theme was extremely effective, the whole orchestra increasing in volume before an abrupt change in texture, where the clarinets acutely-tuned and direct pulse provided a driving yet light accompaniment to the second theme. Once again, the strings never overpowered Vacatelli's key strokes, instead providing a luminescent pad for her to solo over.
In the second movement, the woodwind section echoed the same sensitivity to accompanying Vacatelli as the strings had done in the first movement. Each of the principals in this section exchanged the melody with the soloist in a seamless dialogue. Vacatelli continued to demonstrate her wide emotional range at the piano, eliciting gentle, crystalline textures while proving equally adept at rising to the occasion triumphantly to assert her power as a soloist with thunderous chords. In the third movement, the woodwind section shone once again, executing the spritely introduction with laser-like intonation and rhythmic acuity. Laura Franklin's gentle and tasteful cymbal accompaniment provided a sublime sheen to Vacatello's majestically rolling arpeggios. As a whole, the brass and percussion never obliterated the soloist's amplitude. Rather, they cohesively reinforced her sound with warm and round support. The combined energy of Vacatello's and the orchestra's synchronized scalar runs at the end of the third movement yielded a standing ovation from the nearly packed house.
For her encore, Vacatello selected Franz Liszt's famous, "La Campanella," a fine choice on the soloist's part, as it allowed her to demonstrate her dazzling virtuosity. Members of the audience sat at the edges of their seats in amazement as Vacatello's rapid chromatic runs in the right hand went on auto-pilot, her left hand simultaneously crafting the melody with fluid lyricism.
Following intermission, the orchestra launched into Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11. The opening melody in the strings was beautifully synchronized by Meyer, who subtly communicated precision and expressiveness through his detailed baton strokes. The hushed quality of the muted violins and violas and the sensitivity of the performers provided perfect dramatic foreshadowing for the more intense moments later in the symphony. Unfortunately, this sensitivity proved to be a detriment, with the massive and fidgety audience providing a great deal of aural distraction. The audience slowly reached attentive unanimity when Todd Mueller played his dramatic yet subtle interjections in the timpani. He truly embraced his role as a soloist in this moment, playing the part with a mysterious and majestic character. Lissie Shanahan's and Leonard Lopatin's flute duet melded into a single sound, their restrained yet gorgeous low registers providing a brief moment of chamber music in such the expanded orchestra.
The strings opened the second movement with a subdued urgency that perfectly captured the tension of "Bloody Sunday." The contrast between the weeping melodies in the strings (representing the fallen Marxist petitioners) and the militaristic pointedness of the percussion (representing the Tsar's guards) was exaggerated to great effect. The agitated fugue was impeccably balanced among the violins, violas, and celli, but the brass tended to overpower in this section. While the resulting sound certainly captured the visceral intensity of the music, it also obfuscated some of Shostakovich's finest contrapuntal writing. That said, the duple based rhythms in the percussion section were brilliantly coordinated with the intense triplet rhythms in the strings and xylophone.
The third movement opened with a cautious whisper in the basses. By now, the audience had become fully invested in the performance. The hundreds in attendance held their breath between the rests of the plucked accompaniment, generating added suspense to the music on stage. This gave the viola section a chance to shine, their unified and subtle rendition of the melody providing an excellent contrast to the eruptive sounds of the previous movement. The second theme was performed with superb dynamic balance in the low brass as the frequencies emanating from their bells coalesced into a singularly warm, organ-like sound. The abrupt fanfare opening the fourth movement was played with brilliant gusto by the brass and timpani, the celli dictating the pulse with metronomic precision. The spit-fire chromatically-ascending lines in the violins and Rita Hayes' piccolo jumped out of the orchestral texture with sublime vivacity. The orchestra captured the cinematic quality in this final movement when the thunderous sheet of sound immediately transitions into a reprisal of the quietude of the first movement. Meyer demonstrated his mettle not only as a leader but also as a part of the orchestra when he "passed the baton" to Amanda J. LeBrecque, whose expressive English horn solo stood out as one of the highlights of the evening.
The only real issue with the performance in this reviewer's opinion (as well as that of the gentlemen he was sitting next to), was the quality of the performance venue. The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium's less-than-optimal acoustics were a constant detriment to the balance between instruments. This was especially noticeable in the Shostakovich, with the higher frequencies of the trumpet and snare drum popping out of the texture instead of blending into the overall haunting sheet of sound. This was not the performers' faults, as they were playing at the lowest possible volume on their respective instruments. The dryness of the hall also truncated the ethereal lyricism of many of the first movement's finest moments. An excellent ensemble of dedicated musicians deserves a better performance space.