Hooked on the classics

Under the fluorescent glare of the rehearsal-room lights, it all starts and ends with chairs: setting them up, making sure they’re all accounted for at the end of the evening, folding them and stowing them safely away.

It’s an hour before the first rehearsal for the orchestra’s 1998 Masterworks Series, and principal bassist/music librarian/stage manager Bob Egerstrand is lamenting the shortage of yellow chairs — not to mention black ones.

“The black chairs are the cello chairs,” he explains. “They’re expensive. We only own a few black chairs, so some musicians have donated or bought their own, because … they would have to scramble for them otherwise. The players who own their own black chairs can’t have them taken away.” He points to a gold plaque with an inscribed name on one of them.

Then there are the yellow chairs, which are also in short supply. “It’s great when musicians who are just willing to go with the flow end up in the [uncomfortable] metal chairs,” Egerstrand relates, looking a little worried. “Otherwise, there’s trouble.”

Today, however, everyone gets seated — with no shouting matches or fist fights. An elegant cacophony of strings, brass and animated chatter pervades the rehearsal room.

Robert Hart Baker, the symphony’s music director and conductor since 1981, takes his place on the dais. Baker’s credentials are impressive, to say the least: He studied oboe, piano and conducting at the Manhattan School of Music; led the Bach Society Orchestra at Harvard, where he received a cum laude graduate degree; holds a doctorate in orchestral conducting from Yale; and was previously conductor of the Connecticut Philharmonic (which he founded in 1974) and the Carnegie Hall Youth Symphony. Baker also conducts the York (Pa.) Symphony and the St. Louis Philharmonic.

Suddenly, the room falls silent. “The Tchaikovsky symphony, please,” he requests with quiet authority. The sound of a single violin is slowly overtaken by a rich, full-orchestral sweep — for a few minutes, anyway, till Baker’s arms freeze in a gesture that means “Stop.”

“There’s a breath mark between beats three and four, that you must take” he says calmly. Musicians grab at-the-ready pencils and rapidly make marks on their sheet music.

Throughout the evening, they rest their lavishly beautiful (and frightfully expensive) instruments whenever Baker politely intones things like, “Your final eighth shouldn’t be so choppy,” or “Play stronger and hungrier,” or even, “Smile on the half note.”

ASO players come in all ages, colors and sizes: Young, pony-tailed males take their places beside refined, silver-haired retirees; fresh-faced young women barely out of their teens share music stands with knowing grandmothers.

And players who had no classical training when they started with the ASO share the stage with players who boast years of conservatory study.

Bassist Eliot Wadopian’s musical roots are solidly grounded in jazz (with some rock ‘n’ roll thrown in, for good measure). He graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and returned to his hometown of Asheville in 1980, looking for work. Despite his lack of orchestral training or experience, Baker gave a him a shot at playing with the symphony in 1981, which he’s done ever since — in between gigs with Howard Hanger (they toured the world in the early ’80s), and touring and recording with the renowned Paul Winter Consort (with whom Wadopian played on a recent Grammy-winning release).

“It was a lot of damn work,” he confesses: “It took years of work, practicing four or five hours every day, but I caught up. I guess on-the-job training is always the best way to learn anything.” Now, Wadopian performs with several regional orchestras — including the Greenville Symphony — and also plays electric bass with Asheville Latin/jazz band Con Clave.

Despite his lack of classical training, though, Wadopian should have known from an early age he’d wind up playing with a symphony some day. “I remember in second or third grade, when my dad took me to a North Carolina Symphony concert for children,” he recalls. “I looked up at the principal bassist with that big upright bass and said, ‘Daddy, What is that?’ … I’d never seen anything so huge in my life. And from that moment on, I wanted to be a bass player. I’m glad my dad got to see me do that before he passed away.”

ASO concertmaster Mary Daniels, on the other hand, has been studying and playing classical violin for 48 years (though, judging by her youthful looks, she must have started in the womb). “I was very young, but we’re not going to get into that,” she says firmly. Trained at the Brevard Music Center, East Carolina University and the Cincinnati Conservatory, Daniels has played with orchestras in Greenville, Charleston, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, among many others.

She came home to Asheville in the late ’70s and has been with the ASO since 1980. “The Asheville Symphony is unique,” she observes, “because it’s so good for an orchestra in a town this size. Most smaller orchestras incorporate mostly community players. But here, most orchestra members are professional musicians with really great credentials. … And we’re viable: We have sell-out concerts. It’s wonderful.”

As a woman in a traditionally male bastion, Daniels has met her share of sexism. One conductor told her, “Audiences just want to see a man sitting in [the concertmaster] position”; another insisted on calling her “sweetheart”; and then there’s the orchestra that paid her significantly less than her male counterpart.

But in Asheville, where the orchestra is more than half female, “[Dr. Baker] doesn’t care what gender, color or whatever else you are,” she states. “He wants competency. If you cut the mustard, that’s the bottom line.”

There’s diversity in audiences these days, too — but that, say both Baker and symphony Executive Director Steve Hageman, didn’t come without some work.

“We have to dispel those rumors that you have to dress up in a tuxedo or sit next to somebody who’s going to yell at you for not doing that,” Baker says. “The concerts are casual. … The main thing is, people need to try it and see … that the concert experience is not stuffy, and it’s not burdensome.

“Most people, after they’ve made that one step to try [an Asheville Symphony] concert, never go back,” Baker declares. “They’re surprised at the level of the music.”

What’s more, each concert includes a world-renowned guest artist, many of whom enjoy the experience so much, they return year after year — like acclaimed Russian pianist Dmitri Ratser, who’ll perform Rachmaninoff’s fourth piano concerto with the ASO this year, for the fourth time. (See schedule for a list of this season’s concerts and guest artists.)

The symphony, notes Hageman, makes a conscious effort to offer affordable tickets, in order to encourage community attendance. One discount ticket option, called Pick Three, offers three concerts for as little as $30.

And students can often pick up symphony tickets for what they’d spend on a fast-food lunch. “We have young kids with pierced body parts and tattoos who often come in groups; we’ll see them milling around in the lobby, waiting for tickets — that they usually get — and that’s wonderful,” enthuses Hageman, referring to the ASO’s often-overlooked student-rush tickets: Any seat in the house is yours for the taking for a mere $5 (plus a valid student ID) on nights when the concert is not sold out. “You can wind up in a $40 or $50 seat for $5,” says Baker.

In fact, students — from primary school on up — constitute one of the largest core groups the ASO hopes to reach. A big part of the resistance to classical music is formed early, Baker and Hageman point out. And studies consistently bear out a direct connection between the discipline of learning music and significantly heightened math and science skills. To that end, the ASO sponsors both a youth orchestra and a children’s chorus. There’s also the Strings in the Schools program, which offers string instruction to 250-300 students in the city and county schools each year, many of whom would never otherwise be able to afford to touch classical instruments.

“We’ve actually had players enter that program in third or fourth grade and … end up joining the symphony as [adults],” Baker explains.

“We have to make the Asheville Symphony Orchestra sound twice as good as our budget allows,” says Baker (see sidebar for more on the ASO’s budget). “Beethoven is Beethoven, and it has to sound good.

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