By David Coulson
One of the best kept entertainment secrets in the High Country has become the Appalachian Symphony Orchestra.
How many towns the size of Boone can honestly say they can deliver compelling classical music that breaks new ground, challenges the audience and musicians alike and, at the concert, leaves everyone remembering how much fun they just had?
All of those elements were on display Sunday afternoon at the Schaefer Center when the ASO unleashed its annual student concerto-aria winners concert, under the title of I Want Magic.
When the six diverse pieces of music — featuring some of the shining stars of the Hayes School of Music — were finished over an hour later, a concert-ending, standing ovation was witness that it had indeed been a magical, musical, mystery tour.
The ASO is currently at its peak of creativity, under the guiding baton of Mèlisse Brunet, in her third year as Appalachian’s director of orchestral activities. Like an up-and-coming football coach, Brunet carefully crafted her “team” into a cohesive, winning ensemble, from the grassroots to the top.
And her combination of a bubbly, energetic personality and technical musical skills have quickly found a home on this rapidly-improving campus with students, faculty and concert-goers alike.
Brunet’s reputation as one of the world’s top, young female conductors continues to grow and the biggest question becomes how long will audiences be able to enjoy this incredible Paris, France native and her talented orchestra?
With a delightfully-delicate, French accent adding to her charm, Brunet engages audiences with creative interactions during concerts, holding talks where she explains the pieces being played and the background of the composers, or playful interviews with the performers. It gives insight into the art form that is seldom exposed in the sometimes stuffy, pretentious world of “serious” music.
On Sunday, there was one hilarious exchange where Brunet and one of her orchestra members jokingly argued about the correct pronunciation — English or French — of the “Can-Can,” the famous ending section of Offenbach’s opera Orpheus in the Underworld that screams out French music stereotypes.
The concert began with Beethoven’s powerful, rousing Egmont Overture and brought out the best of the ASO’s dynamic brass section. It was the perfect start for the afternoon and displayed Brunet’s tasty skill of constructing a concert program.
Then it was time to show off the first of the concerto winners. Emma Hammond soloed on the Poem for Flute and Orchestra by the ill-fated, under-recognized American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who died in 1920 during the great influenza pandemic.
This tender example of American impressionism was a perfect choice for Hammond’s sensitive, thoughtful approach on flute, with the strings and woodwinds complimenting the virtuoso’s abundant technique so movingly.
Gretchen Struckmeyer is one of the current all-stars in the Hayes School of Music and this future opera standout shined brightly on a pair of arias.
First this talented soprano tackled the Andre Previn/Phillip Littell song I Want Magic from the operatic version of A Streetcar Called Desire, first brought to life by American diva Renee Fleming.
Struckmeyer not only showed off her technical prowess, she also connected with the crowd by bringing out her infectious stage presence.
She returned later for the whimsical Quel guardo il cavaliere … So anch’lo la virtu magica, from the comedic opera Don Pasquale, written by Gaetano Donizetti and librettist Giovanni Ruffin and sung impeccably in Italian.
Struckmeyer’s ability to get into the character of the beautiful and cunning fem-fatale Norina in such a playful manner brought the crowd to its feet at the end of another stunning performance.
In between Struckmeyer’s stunning performances, Brunet turned over the baton to one of her conducting students, Joseph D. Conte. Conte showed he had taken his lessons to heart in bringing British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Dance Negre, the final movement from the African Suite, to life.
Brunet introduced the crowd to principal viola player Danielle Cuntapay, who had suggested the obscure piece to Brunet and explained her reasons for falling in love with this rare, 1898 gem. As one of the few black composers of his era, Coleridge-Taylor was victimized by overt racism and, like Griffes, died in his mid-30s.
Conte brought the piece to life and got the shifting dynamics and the energy of the composition just right. It was a great example of using all parts of the orchestra efficiently and giving the entire ensemble the chance to shine.
Just as she had gotten the concert off to such a strong start, Brunet chose the perfect closing piece with Orpheus. Those familiar, lyrical Offenbach themes were enhanced even more when Brunet turned to the crowd at the end and got the audience to participate like the best rock-and-roll, front-woman by directing them into rhythmic clapping during the “Can-Can.”
It was such a fun and colorful finish to an absolutely delightful afternoon and left the audience wondering what the talented Brunet will come up with next?