Asheville Symphony Orchestra, conducted by
September 15, 2018
Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
by Don Howland
[Disclaimer: This review of the Asheville Symphony’s opening night concert of the 2018-’19 season is written by a layman who cannot read music or play an instrument, doesn’t like much of anything written before 1880, and only has been seriously listening to classical music for the last three or four years. So take what follows with a grain of salt …]
Shoot! I was all prepared to drop a hundred words in my intro paragraph on how the symphony needs to consider ways to draw a younger crowd, but then I got to the Thomas Wolfe mezzanine and saw a slew of young people – college students getting $10 rush seats, 30-something couples… That was encouraging (if slightly misleading…), and there was a genuine sense of excitement for the season opener and the official debut of the ASO’s new music director, the Serbian Darko Butorac.
Immediately upon reaching the podium, Butorac addressed the crowd, which greeted him with both friendly applause and a sea of CARDBOARD hand-fans passed out at the door that said WELCOME DARKO in orange on black. (The back said “I’m a Darko fan.”) If his modesty and surprise were feigned, his acting ability is as good as his condcting ability. He thanked the crowd for sharing “the best music ever created,” or words to that effect. People in the crowd, I sensed, expected him to elaborate on that, but he left it there and let it hang, so you thought about it. (He’s right, I thought. It is the best.)
I encourage you to watch the Youtube of a TEDx talk Butorac did in Montana (he is also director of the Missoula Symphony, which means he spends a good portion of his life in beautiful cities. Has Missoula been overrun by yuppies? I wonder. Or as overrun? Is there anywhere to move where yuppies haven’t stolen life?) He’s cool – gregarious, laid-back, funny, and sharply intelligent, maybe like if Yogi Bear and Susan Sontag had had two sons, the other of whom was John Malkovich.
Here is the TEDx talk. And here is an outstanding rendition of the piece he discusses in the talk, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture (which has a beautiful beginning and end and a middle everyone has heard 1000x).
Butorac also said he wanted to make the orchestra “the hottest ticket in town” and to see every seat in the TW with a butt in it (it was probably 85% capacity this evening, with some big holes up front on the wings, and he didn’t say “butt”), and after watching this performance, it’s not unreasonable to think that could actually happen. It was good – real good.
The 2018-’19 ASO season is called “Masters” and presents a mostly familiar playlist (for people who listen to normal classical music radio stations. Which is to say there is not a lot particularly exciting on this year’s schedule for someone like me, who feels little to no attraction to music written before 1880.) This safeness (not necessarily blandness) is due mostly, I suspect, to the fact that it was being finalized last spring before the selection of the new director. I was encouraged to learn that it was Butorac who was behind the scheduling of the Shostakovich 5th on this evening’s bill. I do believe scheduling more modern-era and contemporary compositions will help bring in more people in their thirties and forties and build an audience for the future.
The first half of the evening was devoted to Richard Wagner’s Prelude and “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde and Franz Liszt’s first piano concerto.
I understand that Wagner represents the transition from late Romanticism to Expressionism or Modernism or whatever, but I do no listen to his music all – just as I do not and never will listen to the music of Richard Strauss or Anton Webern – because of its associations with Nazism. I am not qualified, then, to say whether Butorac and the ASO nailed the Tristan und Isolde. I used this 17 minutes to survey the audience. I’d say that despite the younger people I saw in the foyer, half of the crowd was 65 and up… I also noticed that the TW’s ceiling still needs a paint job; in the one show I saw last season (not Butorac’s audition, unfortunately, as he chose Prokofiev’s 5th for his centerpiece), a paint flake the size of a license plate wafted down at the conclusion of an excerpt from Nixon in China, just missing the big-string section (…so where is our 75% property tax increase going, exactly?). I can say this about the Wagner piece, I suppose: the people in the seats immediately in front of me clearly knew it inside and out, leaning in as tension built, nodding and swaying with the swells, and they seemed thrilled by the performance, leaping to their feet for a standing-O upon its (for me, merciful) conclusion.
Scheduling a concerto that requires a lot of pyrotechnics from its soloist as the second, pre-intermission piece on a concert program is a good idea. (The show I saw last year featured Joyce Yang playing Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and it was stunning. I mention this because the review I spent six hours writing never got posted on the website…) Watching high caliber soloists taken on hyper-virtuoso scores is just FUN. So I can deal with pre-Modern era stuff like Liszt’s Piano Concerto #1 (written over a couple decades in the mid-19th century.) While it is Liszt’s “greatest hit” (I gather from reading…) and largely frivolous in tone, it requires superhuman skills, and the 23-year-old American pianist George Li nailed it like he wrote it. It was exhilarating in the way the Cirque de Soleil or an Olympic figure skater is stunning: the “no possible way” effect. It was marred only by a cell phone going off in the second or third row, stage left, during a quiet moment. Standing-O, bravos, curtain calls, conductor and soloist hugged; I suspect the younger people will be saying “I saw George Li” in 40 years, assuming the species still exists.
I have, over the last four years, come to regard Dmitri Shostakovich as the greatest artistic genius of the 20th century in any medium (with Orson Welles, probably, at number two); Shostakovich is the sun about which OM orbits. There is an all-Shostakovich station on classicalradio.com and that’s my default tuneage. So, along with Butorac’s official debut, the Shostakovich 5th symphony is why I went.
Shostakovich’s 5th is probably his most popular among classical music fans – it was voted #1, with 28% of the votes, in an on-line poll at talkclasical.com that ranked all 15 symphonies, and it was on a top ten list of symphonies of the century list somewhere else. The 5th is not one I normally listen to unless it’s on Shostakovich radio, mainly because it was a compromised work from the get-go; it was designed to sound “great” in order to appease the Soviet apparatchiks who could terminate his career or, conceivably, his life. (To me, the pre-Stalin-era symphonies, numbers 1 and 4, are a hundred times more fun and interesting, while death-obsessed numbers 13-15 (with 14 my favorite of all) are a thousand times more interesting.) I would certainly have a hard time calling anything (including the other Stalin-era masterpieces, nos. 7 and 8) written to placate a murderous thug Shostakovich’s “magnum opus.”
Still, Shostakovich’s rote “great” is, relative to the competition, pretty friggin’ great, and while it is traditional in structure – its four-movement structure and 45-minute run time are de rigeur late Romantic – the Shostakovich 5th represents a bold choice on Butorac’s part to perform first time out. Shostakovich is arguably the century’s greatest orchestral mind – by which I mean he wrote consistently interesting parts for all of the orchestra sections, isolating each from time to time, and the used quiet to full effect. There are passages in the 5th, as there are in most of his symphonies*, that are essentially chamber music: quartets, trios, duets and solos. [* There are, I should say, a couple I haven’t heard at all. I listen to 98% chamber music.] Everyone on stage gets a time to shine… or fail. And it is certainly not an upbeat work. Its opening bars signal a Mahler-ish gravity that largely holds sway throughout the course of the piece, though it is laced with subtle quirk and sarcasm because that was Shostakovich’s nature. Regardless – or even because – of the motivation behind its creation (fear), it is a heavyweight work, and seeing it – watching the different orchestra sections engage and disengage like gears in a humming transmission – is way better than listening to it on CD.
In his video introduction to the evening’s bill on the ASO website, Butarac listed as #4 on his “Top 5 Reasons” to see the season’s premiere performance the horn parts in the third, largo movement.
I thought that was pretty cool, both to call attention to a particular moment within a movement, especially since that movement is (according to Mstislav Rostropovich – Shostakovich’s great friend and interpreter) the heart and soul of the symphony, and to call attention to the ASO’s excellent horn section. That’s one of those trust-builders. I’d been really impressed with the horn section in the Sibelius 2nd I saw last spring, but the Shostakovich symphony was more demanding and louder. Nothing says “minor league” like a flubbed horn part, and the ASO horns sounded like the ’34 Yankees on this evening. The third movement, sort of rote beautiful for Shostakovich, sounded as good as the Leonard Bernstein version I’d been listening to all week in preparation until a guy in the rear of the auditorium did one of those sneezes that class clowns do for subs – basically, a shout.
Butorac is fun to watch at the podium. He’s a big guy, or at least seems so from sixteen rows back, and he leans toward the musicians with his knees bent as though he was about to elbow another power forward out of the way to get a rebound. The subtleties of the music he conducts with very fluid arm sweeps and hand gestures that anticipate the next bars. The 45-minute Shostakovich 5th is a workout for a conductor so engaged.
There are two basic approaches to the home stretch of the final movement, which back in ’38 was taken as a rousing march for the glorious worker (or at least those who hadn’t already died in Stalin’s genocidal social engineering experiments). Shostakovich’s posthumously published interviews with Solomon Volkov revealed that he had been entirely sarcastic, extending it out for so many bars as a bluntly ironic joke. So, triumph or tragedy: Butorac chose the latter and the orchestra hammered its way home with brute force, or at least as much brute force as wooden and metal instruments can muster. Which is a lot. At its conclusion, Butorac slumped over like a a Siberian work camper who’d tossed his last shovelful. By the time he sprang back up and pivoted to face the crowd, it was on its feet again, in a third standing-O that bordered on pandemonium for an AARP-laden crowd. For a moment I was transported to… Belgrade? In the 1940s? It was, for about ten seconds, disorienting. There were again the curtain calls. but I left before an encore, in case there was one, because orchestra encores tend to be happy and rousing pieces (my two least-favorite adjectives) and because I wanted to go to bed with Shostakovich in my head.
So, quite psyched for the Darko years ahead and especially next year, when he gets to play a major role in shaping the season’s programs. I am personally hoping he’ll bring in more 20th-century stuff, especially Eastern European, British and American works that are NOT overplayed (e.g. a Bartok or Prokofiev violin concerto, any Martinu, Janacek or Britten work, or some Charles Ives or Samuel Barber) because that stuff is exciting to hear loud. And while I’m hoping, there are also a lot of great living composers, and many – most? – of them are women, whether youngsters like Dobrinka Tabakova, Nina C. Young, Lera Auerbach, Missy Mizzoli, and North Carolina’s Caroline Shaw or grande dames like Kaija Saariaho, Gloria Coates and Ellen Zwillich, each with decades of masterpieces to her credit. They write super-engaging works but are never (literally) played by American orchestras. (A Milica Djordjevic piece might be a long shot, but she is a young Serbian so there’s hope…) Really, just some non-“hits” mixed in will be cool. It’s not that much of a gamble – there are late 20th– and 21st-century works (e.g. any Philip Glass, John Adams, John Luther Adams or Steve Reich piece, Gorecki’s 3rd…) that I feel pretty certain would pack a house and create excitement, perhaps broaden the audience, skew the median age of the crowd closer to “birth” than “death…”
But Butorac’s energy will get them through this season fine.