By Samuel Gerweck
Where does one find the heart of Asheville?
It’s everywhere and nowhere.
It is hidden in the summer sunsets that stretch across the horizon into endless layers of purple hue.
It is within the majestic mountains, the soothing harmonies of nature,
and that particular shade of celestial azure, that arrives boldly with every bright sunrise.
These words, though timeless, came together in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Written by Darko Butorac, the Asheville Symphony’s music director, they are part of a recent video that the symphony put forth as a love letter to the city.
“As soon as our March concert was canceled, we looked for an opportunity to create a virtual orchestra performance,” says Shanna Ungate, manager of sales and customer experience at the Asheville Symphony. “[But] Darko wanted [something] more than just a collection of musicians in front of their phones, so he wrote the poem on April 13th, the morning after [a] big thunderstorm.”
The tranquil, rain-washed streets of Asheville and the surrounding natural landscape serve as a visual backdrop to Butorac’s poem and composer Jay Ungar’s piece, “Ashokan Farewell,” performed via video call by the Asheville Symphony and led by the violin solo of concertmaster Jason Posnock.
“We knew ‘Ashokan Farewell’ would be the perfect piece. It is evocative of the spirit of the mountains and has a nostalgic tinge that would resonate with the situation our community is facing,” explains Ungate.
Composer Jay Ungar was born and raised in the Bronx but spent significant time roaming western North Carolina in search of traditional musicians. His experience in the Appalachians informed the composition of “Ashokan Farewell,” and its haunting melody was the theme for Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary series. Now the piece finds new life as the Asheville Symphony’s first foray into the world of socially-distanced orchestral performances.
The spirit of Asheville is hidden in the chaotic ensemble of its streets,
each one pulsing with an endless current of creativity and inspiration.
Hidden within this labyrinth of surprises, it resonates with joy,
intoxicated with art and music, singing forward without care...
And perhaps best understood by the rebellious, and the free-spirited.
A return to normal concert experiences is still a way off; the Asheville Symphony has elected to delay the start of its concert series until February 2021. Like so many other art and music organizations, the Asheville Symphony is taking the hiatus as an opportunity to try out new ways to share its art form in people’s homes.
“Instead of gathering publicly, we have launched ASO @ Home,” says Shanna Ungate. “This will be digital content ranging from guest artist performances at their homes, to educational talks, to behind-the-scenes footage from our commercial recordings.”
Although replicating the experience of a live, in-person performance will never be possible, the quick shifts and new ideas developed by these community staples are a welcome reprieve from the monotony and stress and uncertainty we face day-to-day.
Overlaying iconic Asheville views with the tiny video-chat boxes we’ve become all too familiar with these past two months offers a stark but fitting contrast. Performers may be in their own homes isolated from one another, but they are still an undeniable part of the city’s landscape: playing alone but united by Ungar’s composition. As we navigate this new normal, we can borrow a lesson from this image: even as we remain physically distanced from one another, music can serve as the great unifier. The closing verse of Butorac’s poem might express that sentiment best:
Above all, the heart of Asheville lies with its people.
You will discover it with every gesture of goodwill, typically understated.
It blossoms forth with every smile and knowing nod.
From the river to the peaks, we are bound by it and become one,
a symphony of spirit that floats upon the vibrant mountain air.
We are proud. We are strong. We are Asheville.