Rocking the Classics in Asheville
By Janet Moore
In a city where creativity is a way of life, it’s not surprising that the classics play an integral part of Asheville’s music scene in surprising ways. Take the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, for example.
“Asheville is a musical oasis between Nashville and Atlanta,” says David Whitehill, executive director of the Symphony. “We have an ecosystem here that is steeped in a rich music culture that includes guitars and drums, Moog synthesizers, Mozart, Bluegrass, Indie Rock and Jazz. This combination can’t help but produce great music.”
Evidence of this is in one of the Symphony’s recent projects – a recording album that shows the depth and breadth of Asheville’s musical community. What began as a soundtrack for a documentary on the noted North Carolina philanthropist Julian Price grew into a series of recording sessions with the Symphony and local musicians.
Among the featured artists who collaborated with the Symphony are The Steep Canyon Rangers, Electric Owls, and Rising Appalachia. The CD entitled Asheville Symphony Sessions was released in conjunction with the Julian Price documentary. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that the music we’re recording can be licensed. This means that the participating musician will get paid for their work. That’s important if we are going to be able to attract rich talent who want to live and work in Asheville,” Whitehill says.
“The Asheville Symphony isn’t trying to be the New York Philharmonic,” Whitehill adds. “We’re doing things unique to Asheville.” For example, in tribute to Bob Moog, sound innovator and long-time Asheville resident, the Symphony performed Gustave Holst’s The Planets, using Moog Synthesizers in place of the female chorus.
In March 2019 the Symphony hosted its most recent Asheville Amadeus Festival. “The response was so great to the 2015 Festival featuring Emanuel Axe that we decided to make it a bi-annual event,” Whitehill said. “It’s not hard to attract talent of this caliber to Asheville because we have the reputation of being a great city in which to perform.” The 2017 Amadeus Festival featured violinist Midori, one of the most admired violinists of her generation. The next Amadeus Festival is planned for March 2021.
David Starkey of the Asheville Lyric Opera also has found big-name talent is attracted to Asheville. From the home stage at the Diana Wortham Theatre, the opera company performs productions such as West Side Story, The Barber of Seville and Rigoletto.
For chamber music lovers, there’s no shortage of opportunities to hear some of the world’s outstanding musicians, beginning with Asheville’s resident repertory ensemble Pan Harmonia. The quintet can be found performing in intimate spaces across the state and hosting Chamber Chats that explore the work of the artists performed during their season.
The Asheville Chamber Music Series holds five concerts annually with nationally-renowned guest ensembles. From late June to late July, The Swannanoa Chamber Festival takes up residence on the Warren Wilson College campus. The Festival’s 15 concerts feature acclaimed quartets and individual string and wind performers playing the works of composers such as Hayden, Faure, Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Britton. The Festival is considered to be the Carolinas’ premier chamber music festival.
In neighboring Transylvania County, just a short drive from Asheville, The Brevard Music Center begins its summer-long celebration of music under the artistic direction of Maestro Keith Lockhart, Brevard alumnus and conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. From its open-air stage, students and guest artists perform symphonies, operas, musicals, and concerti. There are plenty of picnic areas making it easy to enjoy al fresco dining on the grounds prior to performances. It’s not only encouraged; it’s part of the tradition that makes the Brevard Music Festival so special.
Shakespeare famously said “If music be the food of love, play on.” For classical music lovers, Asheville has no shortage of lovely music and fine food, and to that we say, play on.