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Christof Perick was scheduled to conduct his farewell concert as Charlotte Symphony music director last spring. He wasn't planning to go gently into that good night, programming Beethoven's Ninth, but he was planning to go relatively briefly, programming nothing else. Regardless, those plans had to be shelved due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland and the disruptions heaped by that unpronounceable volcano on international air travel. So nearly 11 months later, Perick finally returned to the Belk Theater podium, armed with an ampler program. The Bruckner Symphony No. 3 by itself is only about 10 minutes shorter – and 100 singers less populous – than the Choral Symphony, but that work was reserved until after intermission. Lest we forgot that Anton Bruckner's symphony was dedicated to his musical hero, Richard Wagner, Perick programmed two contrasting shorter works to begin the evening, Wagner's Overture to Rienzi and his "Siegfried Idyll."
Of course, the Rienzi isn't Valkyrie-typical of Wagner. The climax gathers momentum in a manner that actually recalls Rossini in its youthfulness. Yet the lack of reticence in deploying brass and horns was certainly akin to the Bruckner that lay ahead. All did not begin auspiciously. Surely the aim of posting principal trumpeter Richard Harris offstage to sound the opening notes was atmospheric, but the timbre that wafted into the hall was like a kazoo's, and the first sallies of the French horns also had an oddly muffled sound. The piece snapped emphatically on track when the brass began playing collectively, first over the frisking strings and then over a pair of snare drums. The thunder of the ending satisfyingly obliterated the tentativeness that marred the opening.
Technically, the slower-paced "Idyll" is less demanding than the overture. The difficulty lies in sustaining its cogency and not allowing it to crumble into disjointed fragments. There were charming fills from the flute (Elizabeth Landon), oboe (Hollis Ulaky), and clarinet (Eugene Kavadlo) amid the early drowsy fabric; but overall, it was the subsequent bridging between the idyllic and the heroic – a joint conspiracy between the French horns and the strings – that was most impressive. As we lapsed back into bucolic languor, the horns continued to blend beautifully even as they dipped softly toward the bottom of their range.
The architecture of Bruckner's "Wagner Symphony" is far more imposing than the "Idyll" but no less intricate or varied. Throughout the epic work, presented in the final 1889 version, Perick and the orchestra re-emphasized their ability to keep a complex argument from disintegrating. But the cogency of the performance was hugely upstaged by the splendor of the brass. All four of the movements – even the second movement Adagio – gave the brass an unusually brisk workout, but the aggregation of three trumpets and three trombones was never off by more than a hair. Against that battery, Perick bolstered the winds, adding an oboe, a clarinet, a bassoon, and a French horn to the instrumentation prescribed in the score. Woodwinds blended quite admirably after the opening proclamations of the brass in the first movement, and there were ethereal atmospherics from the strings before principal hornist Frank Portone's forlorn solo emerged. Another touching Portone solo was embedded in the ensuing Adagio, after the strings gracefully transitioned between a sacred and a romantic mood – and before the closing serenity marrying the two.
Brass became increasingly dominant, announcing the main theme of the third movement, with elegant little fills from Landon and Ulaky. First violins asserted themselves deferentially in dialogue with the brass, figuring more prominently when the entire string choir sweetly caressed the B theme. About the only thing missing from Perick's finale was a chorus, for the concluding Allegro of the "Wagner Symphony" is a jocund, multi-colored delight. Strings were mildly fretful beneath the fiery brass at the outset until the first violins broke into a folksy festive dance. Amid further clamor from the brass, clarinets had an eccentric little interlude, and – preceding an astringent horn quartet – there was even a brief fill for timpanist Leonardo Soto. Cellos held the spotlight over pizzicato strings before the sprightly dance melody reprised from the violins. One more onset of the brass had me thinking for a split second that maybe Bruckner should have shelved the heraldry. Sure enough, the strings arrived at that moment, initiating an unmistakably conclusive triumphal march.
Loosey-goosey or nonchalant aren't terms readily applied to Perick's style of conducting. Yet nearly a year after his previous concert at Belk Theater, the former maestro appeared notably less mannered and more at ease in his delayed valedictory. There was a fire and a joy in the orchestra's response to their old boss – the zest of wanting to shine for him one more time. They did. More importantly, they radiated the confidence that they could.