Friday, May 29, 2009


Maestro Thomas Joiner discusses the new hall
with the press during a rehearsal of the HSO

On May 23, 2009, the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra (HSO) performed for the first time in its new home, the Blue Ridge Conference Hall on the Flat Rock campus of Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC). On the previous Tuesday, the press was invited to attend a rehearsal, at which HSO Music Director Thomas Joiner, HSO board president Don Hupe, BRCC president Molly Parkhill and BRCC vice-president David Hutto provided details about the collaboration of the orchestra with the college during the architectural preparation and construction of the new space.

The space is called a “conference hall,” a name that immediately telegraphs that it will be a compromise multi-purpose facility intended to house meetings, banquets, corporate functions and charity auctions as well as concerts. The good news is that the acoustics are quite good. The compromises show up in lighting, air conditioning and sight lines, and not in the acoustics.

Not only is the new space a major acoustic improvement over the previous venues (Hendersonville High School’s auditorium and First Baptist Church’s sanctuary), but also it is an operational improvement for the orchestra’s musicians and management. Rehearsals now use the same space as the performance. There is a concert Steinway on stage, adequate storage space on campus, and simplified orchestra logistics.

During the rehearsal, members of the press were permitted to evaluate the acoustics, prowl the hall and even visit the stage. I chose to sit in the woodwind section and reminisce about playing clarinet in the Manitoba Schools Orchestra many years ago. The stage acoustics that I experienced in the new hall allow musicians to hear each other, enabling the tightness of ensemble that was previously achieved by the HSO only when they travelled to the Porter Center (Brevard) or the Peace Center (Greenville, SC).

The hall acoustics are also very good, better than I had hoped for in a multipurpose space. An acoustical engineer retained by Mr. Hutto positioned sound absorbing panels after the hall was completed and the floor carpeted, and this final tuning of the hall’s acoustics left no quirky problems anywhere. The orchestra sounds more integrated if you sit at least six rows back, but that is true of many halls. The hall is live, but the decay characteristics are good and I could not detect any resonances.

That is not to say that the new space is perfect. The flat auditorium floor leads to poor sight lines. A single riser (for percussion and brass) might be accommodated, but two risers might destroy the stage acoustics since the shell above the stage is rather low. There is too much air conditioning noise. Perhaps the orchestra should chill the hall before performances and at intermissions, then run the a/c on a low setting during concerts to minimize the air handling.

Hendersonville, after an audacious initiative to support a new downtown concert hall, has abandoned the proposed Mill Center for the Arts (and its dramatic architecture, which excited some of us but was unpalatable to more conservative tastes). A revamped committee has now adopted a position of study and retrenchment. I do not expect to see a dedicated concert hall appropriate for orchestras and other large ensembles built in Hendersonville in my lifetime. So logic tells me to rejoice that the Blue Ridge Community College and the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra in close collaboration have ensured that the multipurpose Blue Ridge Conference Hall was designed and built with very good acoustics. It will make our concert experiences more enjoyable. 

For more views of the new hall and a discussion of its layout, go to

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #435 
May 29, 2009 

Friday, May 22, 2009


Nobody ever says that staging grand opera is easy. Nor do they say that grand opera is a bargain. The cast of singers is large. The orchestral resources are large. The backstage technicians are many. The sets require great stagecraft. And in addition to putting together talent, people and innovative production planning, you need an opera house.

A dedicated opera house is designed to provide the optimum acoustics for live voices on a stage and live musicians in an orchestra pit communicating to a live audience in seats that are close to the stage. There is no provision for uses other than opera and ballet. There is no accommodation for amplified sound. There is no compromise of any kind in a genuine opera house. A genuine opera house does not come cheap.

These thoughts ran through my head on May 9 as I settled into my seat in Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Opened in 2006, the Four Seasons Centre is the first real opera house in Canada and one of few on the North American continent. On a $31M site donated by the Province of Ontario, the architectural firm Diamond and Schmitt have created a $180M modernistic building that contains a traditional auditorium configuration based on European opera houses.

Modernism is most apparent in the ancillary structures. The five-story high “City Room” is an architectural gem that can be used for pre-performance talks on opera and ballet days, and can be rented for other meetings on days without a performance. The glass façade that fronts the City Room on University Avenue brings views of the city into the foyer, and presents a lighted beacon of the arts to the metropolis outside.

The opera house is located at the corner of Queen Street and University Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the metropolis, and is directly above a subway line. To insulate the performing space from external noise, there is an entire "building within a building." The auditorium, stage and orchestra pit are an isolated structure resting on more than 450 rubber acoustic isolation pads that damp all vibrations.

The Four Seasons Centre displays its City Room in this photograph:

For more views inside the new opera house, go to the Canadian Opera Company’s web site at

From the 21st century City Room, you enter the auditorium, whose 2,071 seats are arranged in a proven classical design: a five-tiered horseshoe shape. The furthest seat in the fifth ring is less than 130 feet from the stage. Three-quarters of the seats are within 100 feet of the stage. The seat placement was determined through 3-dimensional computer modeling, resulting in excellent sight lines. Modernism is seen in the auditorium in its use of modern materials and some technical details such as air conditioning vents located under the seats to keep air-handling noise muffled.

Getting seats at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is not to be taken for granted. The Canadian Opera Company boasts that it has sold 99% of all available tickets during its first three seasons in the new opera house. Working through a Member of the President’s Council (persons who contribute $2,250 or more per year to the Canadian Opera Company), I was able to get good seats for a fine performance of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While no principal stood out from the rest, the entire cast, including members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, performed well under the baton of British conductor Ann Manson. An Australian team created the direction, set design, costumes and lighting in an outstanding production originated for Houston Grand Opera and mounted to great effect in Toronto.

As mentioned, opera is not cheap. My seat cost Cdn$136 (about US$118), a middle priced seat in a hall scaled for most performances from Cdn$60 to Cdn$290. But by comparison with the other world-class opera houses that I have attended (Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Metropolitan Opera) as well as some lesser but satisfying houses, it rates to be a bargain. The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is an outstanding piece of architecture that provides the Canadian Opera Company with a home in which to grow in stature and reputation. Plan ahead and see for yourself when you visit the cosmopolitan city that is the modern Toronto.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #434 
May 22, 2009 

Friday, May 15, 2009


Ned Condini has mastered the translation of poetry between Italian and English, in part because he is himself a poet and in part because he is both Italian and American. His literary output includes poetry, short stories and novels, as well as adaptations of others’ work into both Italian and English. Born in Turin, he studied in Italy and England. For decades, he shuttled between Italy, England and the United States. After adopting American citizenship in 1976, he lived in northern New Jersey until he and his wife Marilyn moved to Etowah in Western North Carolina’s Henderson County in 2004.

The Modern Language Association of America published Condini’s An Anthology of Modern Italian Poetry earlier this year. This is his magnum opus of translation, twenty years in preparation, covering the period from Italian unification in the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. The 427 pages present the poetry in his English translation with the original Italian text on facing pages.

“In the English language, my man is William Butler Yeats,” Condini told me recently, in a wide-ranging discussion of modern literature. He expressed great admiration for John Berryman (“a mind like that of Robert Lowell”), Wallace Stevens and Pablo Neruda. He recommended John Ciardi’s translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and regretted that Dante was no longer required reading in Europe.

Just as there have been social and political tensions in Italy ever since the Unification, so there have been conflicts within the world of Italian poetry. Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) was echoing Dante when he used terza rima (three-line stanzas with the chain rhyme the pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-e-d) in “Foxglove.” His contemporary poet Gian Pietro Lucini (1867-1914) used free verse in the sarcastic “Song of the Young Hero.”

In my early reading of the collection, I have also been impressed by the quality of Corrado Govoni, Guido Gozzano, Camillo Sbarbarro, Maria Luisa Spaziani, Pier Paolo Pasolini (especially the political poem “Gramsci’s Ashes”) and Giorgio Guglielmino (visual poems incorporating images and words). I am sure more pleasant surprises await; I must sip the poetry and not pour it down too fast.

Here is Govoni’s “Cavallo” in Condini’s brilliant English translation:

Wild springtime of the horse!
At each elastic step of his
on purple hooves that imprint moons of noise
a dusty hawthorn smokes, a mud bush blooms

The challenge of translating poetry stuns me. Poetry entails an economy of language and a precision of thought that already is difficult to reproduce in translation. Further complication is engendered by the presence of stanza structure, meter and sometime rhymes that work in the original language but may or may not work in another language. Comparing the originals with the translations, it is clear that Condini has used many techniques. Strictly rhymed originals often are rendered in unrhymed English in order to accommodate the best word choice. Six-line original stanzas become four-line English stanzas. But throughout, Condini gives us good English poetry.

Despite my limited hundred-word tourist vocabulary in Italian, I am currently keeping this collection of Italian poetry by my bedside and browsing through, reading the Italian aloud and then the translation. The book is a bargain at $11.95 from your local bookstore or the Modern Library Association. You are paying 32 cents each to meet thirty-eight remarkable poets. An Anthology of Modern Italian Poetry (ISBN 978-1-60329-032-6) will give you many hours of pleasure.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #433
Illustration “Florence at Sunset” courtesy Wikipedia Commons
May 15, 2009

Friday, May 8, 2009


Noting that the New York Times has called Asheville the ‘Paris of the South,’ many people have concluded that the River Arts District is the Left Bank. Left Bank? The French Broad River is very much in view in Asheville, separating West Asheville from Downtown. Squeezed between Downtown and West Asheville, not too far from the former burley tobacco auction houses, is an old warehouse district. There on the Right Bank of the French Broad River, in the flood plain, is the River Arts District (RAD).

The French Broad River
(whitewater in Madison County 
downstream from Asheville) 

In 1994, the first artists arrived, renting space for working studios in what is now the Warehouse Studios at 170 Lyman Street. After arriving in Hendersonville in 2000, I became aware of Studio Strolls that opened up studios to visitors on two weekends a year. When I first visited the RAD, perhaps twenty painters, sculptors, jewelry makers, potters and other artists were working in the Cotton Mill Studios, Curve Studios and other buildings on both sides of a disturbingly active railroad line. (One year, a train parked in the district during the semi-annual Studio Stroll, blocking both connecting roads for hours.) Interest boomed beginning about 2003 and by the time I moved to Asheville in 2007, one hundred artists were there. Now more than 120 artists of all kinds (including dancers and musical instrument makers, contemporary crafters,
avant garde sculptors and painters) work in twelve buildings, six of which are owned by artists. The RAD is Asheville’s answer to New York City’s SoHo district. 

The Cotton Mill Studio
(one of twelve buildings housing 
artists in the River Arts District) 

Upriver from Asheville, twenty-five miles south by road (more by the tortuous French Broad) lies Hendersonville, a popular retirement community amidst the agriculture area dominated by apple orchards. Hendersonville also has many fine artists and a number of galleries. On Friday, May 1 in the lobby of the Blue Ridge Performing Arts Center on the main floor of the old Skyland Hotel building at 6th and Main in Historic Downtown Hendersonville, the Arts Council of Henderson County awarded prizes and officially opened the exhibition “River District Artists.” This is a groundbreaking event: the first time that the River District Artists of Asheville have held a collective exhibit outside the River Arts District itself.

Lochie Overbey, the chair of the Arts Council of Henderson County, made remarks, as did Janice Lierz, chair of the Asheville Area Arts Council and Eileen Black of the River District Artists before Jim Faucett, Executive Director or the ACHC, officially opened the show and invited the crowd of perhaps 150 people to move upstairs to the D. Samuel Neill Gallery.

I spotted perhaps twenty RAD artists that I knew, and I have no reason to doubt that in attendance were more than forty of the sixty artists who have works in the exhibit. I was pleased to see not only Hendersonville gallery owners Ann Oliver, William Gordon, David Voorhees and Constance Vlahoulis but also other key people active in the cultural affairs of Hendersonville. I chatted with Bob Wiley of Hendersonville Chamber Music, Elaine Ciampa of the Hendersonville Film Society, George Alexsovich and Harry Sparshott.

I met for the first time Kate Brighton, the theatrical producer and artistic director who recently bought the Blue Ridge Performing Arts Center and is reviving the Absolute Theatre Company that used to operate when she previously lived in Hendersonville in the 1990’s. I also met Julie Spalla of the Revolving Arts Gallery, a new gallery that will be opening soon next to the Mast General Store in Hendersonville. Galleries have been disappearing or retrenching on Main Street. Touchstone Gallery, A Show of Hands and Divine Stained Glass are no longer there and the Wickwire Gallery has dropped its second location. So it is good to see Brighton and Spalla defying the recession by initiating new cultural ventures.

“River District Artists” will be on exhibit now through June 20 at the Neill Gallery in Hendersonville at 538 North Main Street, 2nd Floor, open Tuesday to Friday from 1:00-5:00 pm and Saturday from 1:00-4:00 pm. You may find out more about the River Arts District at their extensive website:

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #432
May 8, 2009 

Friday, May 1, 2009


Last weekend in rapid succession, first visual artists and then musicians took time and devoted their talent to assist in funding the arts education of our young people in Western North Carolina.

On Saturday April 25, 2009, the QuickDraw Benefit in Haywood County included a buffet at the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort accompanied by a silent auction (during which thirty arts and crafts items were sold) and concluded with a live auction of paintings that had been completed on the premises during the “One-Hour Artists” event that provided excitement before dinner. Nineteen artists began with easels, pigments, brushes and canvas or paper arrayed before them. One hour later they put down their brushes in front of a completed painting. They were then given fifteen minutes to dry, mat and frame the art.

The large crowd milled about the room to see how their favorite artists were progressing. I tracked some distinguished artists from Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania Counties: Ann Vasilik, Sarah Sneeden, Kelly Welch and Pamela Haddock. Not only were they intent and fast; they were producing thoughtful and high quality work. Soon I was watching several artists from Waynesville - Jo Ridge Kelley and Luke Allsbrook – and Ken Umbach from Murphy. Young artist Juan Pablo Peña Mejia, also from Waynesville, had volunteered his effort out of gratitude for assistance in his art education that he had received from the QuickDraw program.

More than 50% of the sale price from the auctions supports the Haywood County schools’ art education. Well over $9,000 was netted from this year’s event. Judging from their accents, many of the bidders have retired to the area from other parts of the country, and it is to their credit that they think so highly of their adopted community that they support art education.

The next day, Sunday April 26, 2009, the Asheville Area Piano Forum held their Spring Benefit Concert. The Asheville North Seventh-Day Adventist Church donated the use of their sanctuary, which had pleasing acoustics and a nice ambiance. The program featured eight of Western North Carolina’s finest pianists. Most teach in area colleges or have local teaching studios. Others have retired from high profile careers elsewhere.

With performers Susan Kincaid, Karen Boyd, Polly Feitzinger, Virginia McKnight, Anna Hayward, Teresa Sumpter, John Cobb and Susan Fehr, it was not surprising that the performances exhibited an exacting quality. The pianists’ choices of virtuoso repertoire made one think that there was perhaps a little friendly rivalry. If so, we benefited from it.

There were familiar classics such as Beethoven’s “Variations on God Save the King” played by Susan Kincaid and Schumann’s “Variations on the name Abegg” played by Anna Hayward. And there were twentieth-century works such as Ernst von Dohnányi’s fiendishly difficult “Capriccio in F minor, Op. 28 #6” played by John Cobb and “Sonatine pour Yvette,” a 1962 work by Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge played by Teresa Sumpter, a new faculty member at Mars Hill College. I hope to hear more Montsalvatge, who is clearly an overlooked twentieth-century composer of major talent.

All performers contributed their effort. Proceeds from this year’s fall benefit will go half to the Asheville Symphony Orchestra’s piano fund and half to the AAPF Student Assistance awards. The AAPF raises its main support for the Student Assistance awards at its fall benefit concert, which will be at Diana Wortham Theater on September 27 featuring two pianos and twenty pianists.

The children of Western North Carolina are the future of the arts for our area and beyond. How pleasant to see youth education supported in both the performing and the visual arts in the course of one weekend here in the mountains.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #431
May 1, 2009