A little after noon Sunday in Asheville’s Pack Square, the first sounds indicating a turning point for the Asheville Symphony Orchestra came from Alicia Chapman, an oboe player testing out a series of reeds for optimal outdoor performance.
“There is a pilot light, a flame that’s inside when I play music,” Chapman said. “I was a little afraid, ‘oh my gosh, it’s dimming,’ but when you have a chance to actually, like today, be around your colleagues and your loved friends and make music together, that pilot light just flames up again and you realize ‘ahh, there I am.’”
During the pandemic, musicians of the Asheville Symphony adapted by teaching remotely or performing in small, distanced clusters or with other groups. They made a video virtually. But the full orchestra hadn’t performed in front of an audience since Feb. 22, 2020. Or, as music director Darko Butorac has kept track, 575 days.
“What we’re doing today is absolutely what it’s about. It’s about live sound,” Butorac said. “I mean, this is why we exist. It’s about sharing the gift of great music wirth as many people as possible, and I can’t think of a better way to get back started than here in the park today.”
So, after temperature checks and signing waivers, the musicians gathered Sunday afternoon in a cramped horseshoe on the covered stage of Pack Square amphitheater. It felt as much like a reunion as a rehearsal for that night’s concert.
“Even when we’re apart for the summer, you kind of have that edge on the first rehearsal to see if you can play as an ensemble as well as you have the prior years,” said Lee Metcalf, the principal bassist and a member of the orchestra for 34 years. “I’m glad we’re starting with pops (music) instead of Beethoven 5.”
An hour before the concert’s opening note, more than a thousand people had set up chairs, blankets, even portable picnic tables. Many hundreds more eventually poured in, to the edges of the park and as far back as Market Street.
Music is a huge part of my life, so not seeing it live and in person has definitely created a void, said Kathy Seguin, who has subscribed to the orchestra and hardly missed a concert since moving to Asheville six years ago.
“Even though I’ve got my Bose stereo, the sound is different, and also seeing the musicians, feeling it in the air, and seeing the audience and fellow music lovers here,” she said. “I feel that fresh breeze coming in, and the drama of the weather—is it going to rain or is it not?”
But a blanket of clouds above Pack Square never produced more than a few droplets, and Butorac beamed when he took to the podium just after 7pm.
“Hello Asheville, welcome to your Asheville Symphony Orchestra!” Boutrac said, holding his arms up to the musicians behind him.
Nobody in the orchestra wanted to talk about clouds of the evolving pandemic looming over the season ahead. Changing health guidelines could disrupt indoor gatherings of any large size. The Asheville Symphony is next scheduled to perform Nov. 20 at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.
For at least one night, nothing stood between Asheville and its orchestra but the music.