Sonic boon

Half a century is a long time if you're talking about a savings bond maturing, a bottle of Bordeaux aging or a marriage lasting. Not so long if you're talking about the age of a nation, a supposed Ming Dynasty vase or a Redwood tree.

So when it comes to a symphony orchestra, how old is 50 years? The oldest ensemble is Germany's Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, established in 1743, and The New York Philharmonic, organized in 1842, claims the title of oldest "extant American symphonic institution." While the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, celebrating its 50th anniversary, isn't setting an international record, that half-century is a laudable accomplishment, and those years are full of perhaps little-known surprises.

Star gazing

For the record, 50 is the number of years that the symphony has been incorporated. According to a timeline compiled by Arnold Wengrow (who was approached by the Symphony to write a booklet celebrating the golden anniversary), the Asheville Symphony Orchestra was originally formed in 1927 by Lamar Stringfield, a Mars Hill College and Juilliard School graduate. The initial group performed concerts for three summers. "What I've been impressed by is what an amazing interest there was in classical music in this town, going back to 1927," says Wengrow. Two short years later — during the Great Depression — the Asheville Civic Orchestra was formed by a federal music project, and that effort lasted into the 1950s.

The present iteration of the Symphony dates — depending on how you're counting — to 1958, when, according to Wengrow's timeline, "Joan Beebe, Agnes K. Whitman and Frank Rutland signed a charter incorporating the Asheville Little Symphony." With its first manager, the symphony moved toward professional status in 1960, and by the following year, dropped the "Little" from its name. October 17 marked the first concert of its first subscription season.

"We're celebrating 50 years, but we also want people to be aware of the value of the Symphony in the community," says Symphony board president Carolyn Hubbard. "People think of us as a black-tie organization, and we are truly a community partner in a lot of ways." Case in point: the Symphony kicked off its anniversary year with a free, lovely and packed Labor Day concert in Pack Square Park.

The open-air performance, made possible through a grant from The Chaddick Foundation, was both a break with tradition and the perceived buttoned-up-ness of the concert hall. It wasn't, however, unprecedented for Asheville: Free symphony concerts date back to a "Pops in the Park" performance in '91, followed by shows in '92, ‘93 and '97.

In fact, the Asheville Symphony's past 50 years are studded with experiments, format busters, discoveries and stars. "Going way back, one of the first big stars was operatic tenor Jan Peerce," says Wengrow. Dinah Shore was a guest for a patriotic pops concert in 1986 — at the horse arena of the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, no less. Country singer Ronnie Milsap took part in another symphony event at the Ag Center — "Pops Goes Country" — in '88. Christopher Reilly, who Wengrow calls "the Garrison Keillor of the classical music world," was a guest in 1989, as was violin virtuoso/conductor Itzhak Perlman (Perlman had such a great experience, he returned the following year). Leontyne Price was presented, by the Symphony, in solo recital in 1991. Collaborations have happened with the likes of Red Herring Puppets.

And then there were (and still are) the new discoveries. "In recent years, there's been a move from the 'grand master' approach to 'rising stars,'" explains Wengrow. Cellist Zuill Bailey, touted as "the next Yo Yo Ma," performed in Asheville in 2007 and again in 2009; Asheville native violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley (a virtuoso just beginning his own upward trajectory) returned to WNC last year.

From Szymanowski to Sirius.B

Rising stars are both a fiscal necessity (established celebrities come with a hefty price tag) and an aesthetic choice. Current Asheville Symphony conductor and music director Daniel Meyer seeks out talent (musicians, composers and, perhaps most importantly, the Symphony's educational and outreach components). But rising stars are sometimes behind the scene — as is the case with executive director Steve Hageman, who became the Symphony's 10th manager in 1997.

"When it started, it was truly a community orchestra," Hagemen says of the Symphony. Rehearsals were held in a church, and musicians volunteered their time. "There were still unpaid orchestra members in the 1980s."

"[WCQS music director] Dick Kowal was one of them," says Carole Roskind, a member of the Symphony's 50th Anniversary Planning Committee. Robert Hart Baker, the Asheville Symphony conductor from 1981-2004, made great strides to increase the professionalism of the orchestra (these days, all performers are vetted in a double-blind audition process). To assure the Symphony's extensive programming can continue, Hageman — a businessman — is focused on the financial end.

"I don't think it's a secret that nonprofit arts programs are struggling," he says. "Savannah lost its symphony 10 years ago, Charleston is reorganizing this year, the North Carolina Symphony itself had to get a special allocation from the state this year. They're deeply in debt. We try to keep ourselves fiscally responsible."

That doesn't mean they're getting rich. Donations and memberships are as vital as ever. For Meyer, the challenge is to reach out to new potential members and to educate today's students who are tomorrow's symphony goers and performers.

Current membership hovers in the middle age- to retirement age-range.

Meyer, in his ‘30s, is an innovator. With the Pittsburgh Symphony (where he is also resident conductor), he created a program of Pink Floyd music. "I've always hated Muzak-ified rock," he says. "But it was a perfect synthesis … translating things written for synthesizers into the Symphony." This season in Asheville includes a collaboration on A Midsummer Night's Dream with N.C. Stage. And, on opening night, "There are some things off the beaten path. One piece is this wonderful violin concerto by Szymanowski. It's almost like The Sorcerer's Apprentice meets John Williams. It's really cinematic."

Which is to say, Meyer is all about taking chances. Haven't visited the Symphony in a while (or ever)? You may be surprised. The 80 to 100 performers who make up the orchestra don't live their lives in dress slacks and serious expressions. In fact, most of the musicians have other gigs, from teaching music and performing with other orchestras to lending their talents to recording projects and playing with local bands. Piccolo player Rita Hayes and cellist Paul Ghost Horse are in Celtic-flavored Braidstream, bassist Elliot Wadopian is a member of world-beat trio Free Planet Radio and percussionist Matthew Richmond performs with pop outfit stephaniesid.

Hubbard points out, "They might not be able to do that if it weren't for the Asheville Symphony. If they get a job at the Symphony, it's secure, it's a base." It's both a financial base and a jumping-off point for experimentation as well as networking.
Want to take in a classical music concert up close and out of the concert hall? The popular Opal Music Quartet is made up of four symphony strings players; principal second violinist Amy Lovinger and associate principal cellist Franklin Keel also moonlight in Gypsy/experimental collective Sirius.B. Or look for performances by Keowee Chamber Music (symphony cellist Kathleen Foster is a member), Café String Quartet (with cellist Eric Scheider), Asheville String Trio (with viola player Margery Kowal) and Blue Mountain Ensemble (with principal bassonist Michael Burns).

Mastering the masters

So what's next for the Symphony? As Whitney Houston says, "The children are our future." As Meyer says, "My dream is that arts becomes core and every school has band and chorus and orchestra."

Current funding crunches make it increasingly difficult to bring programs into the schools, but the Symphony's Strings in Schools program dates back to 1978; the Junior Symphony began in 1981 and the Asheville Symphony Children's Chorus debuted at the Holiday Pops concert in 1998. Says Wengrow, "The Symphony is poised, with Daniel Meyer, to create a youth explosion locally."

Meyer points out that the reality of a younger (30s and 40s age-range) audience is that people have kids, and going out requires a baby sitter. But, "There are more people attending classical music concerts than ever in history." And, he adds, "Thankfully in Asheville, it's such a fertile community of people who are inquisitive and will try anything."

Roskind points out that the season opening takes place in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium the same night that the Blue Ridge Rollergirls take on the Atlanta Rumble Bs in the Civic Center arena. Could the two audiences merge? Why not — Asheville is a town of experimentation, networking, mashups and breaking new ground. Which might be why Meyer feels comfortable forwarding his personal mission of bringing contemporary composers and new music to the Symphony.

"It's a philosophy. It's showing that our art form is a living one. There's a continuum," he says. "Composers I've collaborated with revered the old masters. Although John Corigliano may not sound like Felix Mendelssohn, he certainly knows Mendelssohn's works. He tries to find the connections between old masterpieces and works being composed while we're talking in this interview." New music also references doo-wop, Zeppelin-style rock and hip-hop "to pique something in our collective imaginations. All the great composers infused their work with popular idiom," says Meyer. "That transformation is the excitement of the journey of hearing new works."

Sounds like an excellent jumping-off point for the next 50 years.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

who: Asheville Symphony Orchestra
what: Season opener, with violin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine. Featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Suite from Sleeping Beauty,” Szymanowski’s “Violin Concerto No. 1” and Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis.”
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
when: Saturday, Sept. 18 (8 p.m. Adult tickets $19/$33/$40/$53. Student tickets $12/$22/$28/$38. Season tickets available.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “Sonic boon

  1. carole roskind

    This piece is fantastic! Captures the excitement of the experience of going to an Asheville Symphony concert and watching Daniel Meyer in action (for example, on Labor Day this year, as you note!).

    Great writing! Great history and promise for future generations.


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