No sour notes

The two characters which make up the word “crisis” in the Chinese language translate into English as the words “risk” and “opportunity.”

The Asheville Symphony Orchestra faced a crisis last April when its music director and conductor, Robert Hart Baker, fell seriously ill. It quickly became evident that he would not recover in time to resume his duties for the beginning of the concert season this autumn. Stricken with pancreatitis, Baker spent four months in the hospital (he is now completing his recovery at home). The season seemed in jeopardy.

However, ASO Executive Director Steven Hageman and his staff — with Baker’s help and music-world contacts — have secured the services of renowned guest conductors, giving local music fans an opportunity to hear our symphony orchestra conducted by some of the best in the business.

The September concert, under the direction of Baker’s friend David Bowden, was a rousing success. Critics report that the orchestra played with skill and assurance — making it clear that the players are looking toward the upcoming season with confidence. Now, come Oct. 14, concertgoers will experience a perfect match of musical works and conductor when Maurice Peress arrives in Asheville to conduct A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

Peress was selected by Bernstein himself as assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic. He was described as a master when he directed the premiere of Bernstein’s Mass, the work chosen to inaugurate Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in September 1971.

The October Asheville concert, celebrating Bernstein’s work on the 10th anniversary of his death, will begin with a composition by one of his role models — George Gershwin’s The Cuban Overture. Peress is also intimately acquainted with Gershwin’s work, having made music history by reconstructing Gershwin’s most popular concerts — including a 60th-anniversary rendition of the 1924 Aeolian Hall Concert, which introduced Rhapsody in Blue. The Cuban Overture was inspired by Gershwin’s trip to Havana in 1932. The composer left the island with the idea for an orchestral work based on Cuban music, and he acquired a number of native percussion instruments expressly for the piece, shipping them back to New York. The resulting score, originally titled Rumba, is a musical postcard from that tropical paradise.

The evening will continue with three of Bernstein’s works. Serenade is a series of related statements in praise of love — its mythology, mystery, humor, power and charm. Peress will then conduct Symphonic Dances, drawn from West Side Story. That Broadway production was one of the first musicals to explore a serious subject with wide social implications, and the score includes some of Bernstein’s most popular music. (In 1961, the composer chose a sequence of dance music from the work to assemble as a concert piece.)

This special evening will conclude with Overture to Candide. The music, written to accompany a contemporary stage version of Voltaire’s novel, captures perfectly the wit, brilliance and slapstick tumult of that work.

And classical-music fans in Western North Carolina will get another chance to hear an internationally respected conductor’s work on Nov. 18, when Paul Polivnick leads the ASO in Totally Tchaikovsky.

Ann Lewis writes Upbeat, the newsletter of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. The ASO’s Masterwork Concerts begin at 8 p.m. in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein will take place on Saturday, Oct. 14; Totally Tchaikovsky on Saturday, Nov. 18. Adult tickets cost $14-$38; student and senior tickets range from $9 to $30. For tickets or more information, contact the Asheville Symphony Orchestra at (828) 254-7046 or

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