Conduction: not just for physics class

“I expect to tick a couple of people off,” reveals Daniel Meyer. “And I expect to inspire people’s perception of art.”

On Saturday, Sept. 17, a year to the day that Asheville Symphony conductor-hopeful Meyer wowed an audition audience with his baton-waving prowess, he took to the stage again — this time as the local symphony’s official maestro, opening the fall season’s MasterWorks series.

Besides a winning way with a wand, the thirty-something conductor has a knack for choosing crowd-pleasing programs — and he just happens to do justice to a tux. But now that he’s nabbed the coveted conductorship, what’s next?

He’ll send you

“There’s a reason we’re still playing music from 200 years ago,” Meyer continues during our recent interview. So, just because he’s dubbed this season A New Era Begins, it doesn’t mean the symphony is leaving Rachmaninoff in the dust.

“Here’s how not to attract new audiences,” the conductor instructs: “1) Pander or play what you think people would really want to hear; 2) Underestimate the potential audience; 3) Program works that are hard for you to understand and then not say anything about them to the audience.”

He goes on: “If the performance is that intense and that well-played, you’ll earn people’s ability to cast away their sense of time.”

Not being a regular symphony-goer myself, but being in the same age group as Meyer and the majority of the soloists he’s scheduled for the six MasterWorks concerts, I attended the Sept. 17 event to find out if the conductor, like Calgon, could take me away for an evening. Or at least for a 10-minute opus.

Admittedly, I was distracted through most of the opening number as I scoped out the audience (the majority of whom could be the parents or even grandparents of the new conductor) and musicians. My knowledge of symphonies comes largely from a favorite childhood book — The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, by Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont — which banishes the intimidation factor of classical music with cartoonish drawings of all the instrumentalists in their undergarments. Good fun. However, unlike in this kids’ book, where all the players end up on stage in somber black attire, Asheville Symphony members wear a cacophony of colors and styles, from emerald-green jackets to fuchsia evening gowns. By the time I got past the party-in-the-orchestra-pit look of it, the next number was about to start.

Something to talk about

And that’s when soloist Nicolas Kendall made his appearance.

Not yet 30, the award-winning violinist plays with such confidence and unerring precision that becoming entranced was really the only option. I drifted through Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor and Massenet’s romantic Meditation from Thais before realizing that Kendall was breezing through the complex pieces without the benefit of sheet music.

“He has a real gift for making music fun,” Meyer says of the violinist — who just so happens to have soloed at the concert that won the maestro his permanent Asheville engagement. “[Kendall] was almost picking his strings,” enthused concertgoer Robyn Leslie after catching Meyer’s 2004 conducting audition. Leslie added: “It wasn’t ‘Rocky Top’ or anything, but it was so here, so Asheville.”

“In future seasons, you’ll see young talent mixed with more seasoned talent,” the conductor says. “I’m going to find guest artists who have something to say about music.”

Keeping up with what’s hot in classical is something Meyer takes seriously — and he considers his current commute from Pittsburgh (where he serves as resident conductor of that city’s orchestra) an advantage: “I get to soak in all these other opportunities in Pittsburgh and transfer that to the Asheville Symphony.”

Swoon units

“The best music written for symphonies today is coming from American composers,” he insists. This weekend’s MasterWorks 2 opens with Vertigo, a suite by 20th-century composer Bernard Herrmann, and MasterWorks 3 (Sunday, Nov. 20) features 20th-century selections by Russian composers Rodion Shchedrin and Sergei Prokofiev.

But that doesn’t mean the music director is turning his back on the greats: Expect Brahms and Beethoven at the MasterWorks 2 concert — and possibly other sensual movements from the past.

“Classical music really had a tradition of capitalizing on stage presence and beauty,” says Meyer. “Women would show up to a [Franz] Liszt recital and swoon.” Perhaps — with its easy-on-the-eyes conductor and a lineup of striking new talent — Asheville Symphony is poised to revive that trend. But when it comes to building the local orchestra audience, Meyer’s currently focusing on more immediate concerns. “One of my biggest jobs,” he says, “is dispelling the myth that there’s a certain way to act at a concert.”

A few hints: Fancy dress isn’t required, alcohol is served but not allowed in the auditorium, and enthusiastic clapping is encouraged. Swooning? Optional.


MasterWorks 2: Two of the Big Bs takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Guest artists are Jennifer Orchard on violin and Mikhail Istomin on cello. Tickets are $15-$42/adults and $9-$30/students ($5/student rush tickets are available at 7:45 p.m.). Catch an encore performance at Brevard College’s Porter Center for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23. $20. For more information, call 254-7046 or visit www.ashevillesymphony.org.

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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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