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Compared with the interval since the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra last played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1,with guest soloist Simon Trpceski, in April 2006, it's been more than twice as long since Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was last heard at Belk Theater. Yet the mighty brass and the thrilling percussion that color the climax of Maurice Ravel's extraordinary orchestration has remained more vivid in my memory. That was the night in October 1999 when conductor Roberto Minczuk decisively proved he was the worthiest of the candidates to succeed Peter McCoppin as artistic director of the CSO. Or so it seemed to me until the orchestra chose Christof Perick and his more prestigious Met Opera résumé. Ironically, Minczuk is now the music director of the Calgary Philharmonic – in McCoppin's native Canada – after landing choice associate posts with the New York and London Philharmonics. Minczuk is also at the center of a major brouhaha in his native Brazil after announcing that he would re-audition all the musicians in the Brazilian Symphony.
So the bigger question for me, as Christopher Warren-Green strode to the podium for the start of his second season, was not how his Tchaikovsky would compare with the one led by associate conductor Alan Yamamoto but how he would measure up against Minczuk's memorable triumph. Even this may not have been the biggest question of all. With orchestras floundering across America and CSO dubiously distinguishing itself among Charlotte performing arts organizations for the amount of red ink it's wading through, how well Warren-Green and the Symphony play isn't quite as urgent a matter as how they draw. There was a robust crowd to greet CSO executive director Jonathan Martin, who informed subscribers that WDAV-FM was broadcasting the concert live and that Warren-Green would be appearing afterwards for a talkback, along with guest soloist Martina Filjak. If that wasn't appealing enough – to the live audience and radio listeners – there was the program itself, with Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" inserted as an appetizer before the proven crowd-pleasers. If you were listening to the WDAV broadcast, you didn't have to wait long for lively sounds and enthusiastic ovations.
Wielding a robust brass section – four trumpets, three trombones, and a tuba – Warren-Green lay into the "Festive Overture" with unusual animation, driving the orchestra to a treacherous tempo after the arresting opening fanfare of the brass. It was the strings, however, that seemed most challenged by the furious pace. The recap went better after the brass reprised their fanfare, and the orchestra galloped at an even more thrilling clip – a pretty electrifying way to begin a season.
Some of that festive spirit definitely spilled over into the Tchaikovsky as Warren-Green took the Allegro marking of the Piano Concerto's first movement a little more seriously than the non troppo. There was certainly no need to gloss over the familiar A theme, for Filjak supplied more than sufficient firepower at the keyboard. On the other hand, Warren-Green managed to keep nearly all of the grandeur in place as the orchestra swept over the brisk march of the fulsome chords – only in the aftermath did the performance lose its coherence and inspiration. Not to worry, the entire movement spreads out to more than 20 minutes. By the midpoint, everyone was back on stride as the music slowed down, gathering and building to its climax, with the dialogue between the soloist and the ensemble bringing forth Filjak's lyrical gifts in the restatement of the B theme. Principal flutist Elizabeth Landon beautifully introduced the charming Andante, and as Filjak sustained her eloquence, cellist Alan Black and oboist Hollis Ulaky kept the spell intact. Buoyed by the sweet sounds of the violins, Filjak bounced into the closing allegro, virtuosically reasserting herself with all the nimbleness and sparkle demanded by the score. She and the orchestra both recalled the thunder of the grand opening as the concerto roared to its close, bringing most of the crowd quickly and loudly to its feet.
Paradoxically, if the 1999 Pictures demonstrated how much more Minczuk deserved the vacancy than Perick, the 2011 Pictures exhibited how far the CSO progressed under Perick's leadership. Starting with acting principal Richard Harris's trumpet solo in the introductory "Promenade," the brass section continued to astonish both individually and collectively. Principal trombonist John Bartlett teamed up effectively with tuba principal David Mills in the "Gnomus" section before Thomas Burge parked his trombone while playing some memorable tuba in the "Bydlo," and Harris returned with flawless work on the muted solo in "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle." The winds distinguished themselves in the "Il vecchio castello" section, the bassoons and saxophone particularly effective, before the flutes and clarinet came breezily to the fore over the violins in "Tuileries." Flutes chirruped merrily in the "Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells" before principal bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak led us creepily down into the bass clef midway into the penultimate "Baba-Yaga" section.
Throughout the suite, I could detect the sharpness and precision that Perick had brought to the orchestra when it was his, but there is already a newfound delicacy and sensitivity in the softer episodes that are marks of Warren-Green's tenure. Two years ago, the lightness of "The Market Place in Limoges" and the mystery of the "Catacombs" might have sounded more perfunctory. A year ago, as Warren-Green was acclimating himself to his new homeland and the Belk Theater, fortissimos often sounded underpowered – or, when the orchestra did play full-out, blurry and not properly scaled to the hall. Now the precise scaling is back, and the British reserve is evaporating. The contrast between the quiet passages of "The Great Gate of Kiev" and the majesty of the mighty ending was so electric that Minczuk might have tingled if he heard it. Warren-Green is sounding more like an American conductor, and Charlotte Symphony at their best – as they repeatedly are in Pictures at an Exhibition – is sounding better.