No, this is not yet another story about battling Miss North Carolinas, but it is the start of a “contest” which may hinge as much on personalities and marketing as the other one, which hopefully we won’t need to hear about any longer. This past weekend brought Peter Oundjian to the podium of the North Carolina Symphony as the first guest conductor in a yearlong search for the next Music Director. It is a rather curious situation because although this season is being billed as the search for Gerhardt Zimmermann’s successor, none of the nine guest conductors this season has declared his/her candidacy for this position, and none is officially viewed as a candidate by the eight-person search committee. In fact, this process may continue right through the 2003-04 season.

Peter Oundjian’s appointments as conductor and music director are numerous, with his primary positions being Artistic Director of the Caramoor International Music Festival and Music Director of the Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam. His prowess and respect as a conductor have grown so much that his biography almost puts as a footnote his fifteen-year tenure as first violinist of the renowned Tokyo String Quartet. However, he is no Johnny-come-lately to the podium. As far back as 1976, when he was a violin student at Juilliard, he was chosen to conduct for the late Herbert von Karajan during a three-day master class.

Oundjian bounded onto the podium and was greeted warmly by the nearly sold-out crowd on September 20. I don’t know if it was because we are still so close to the September 11 anniversary, but the entire orchestra rose (except for cellists and harpist!) to play the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then, for many of us, we were transported back to a darkened theater for the ominous opening (very Jaws -like) of “A Night on Bald Mountain,” by Modest Mussorgsky. This work was featured in the 1940 film Fantasia , and it is probably safe to say that if known at all by most people, it is likely from its inclusion in Disney’s masterpiece.

The frightening depiction in the film is actually very close to its programmatic description of a witches’ Sabbath on Bald Mountain, near Kiev. This is a score that was reworked many times by Mussorgsky and was quite daring for its time. Even without the Disney-inspired memories, it truly is one of the most effective and vividly painted tone poems in the repertoire. Oundjian, who conducted the entire evening without scores or a podium, picked a rousing opener to demonstrate his leadership and the orchestra’s superb brass section. I did notice however that for brass-heavy works, the main level orchestra sections in Meymandi Hall are not the best. The sound seems to stay grounded on the stage, a huge difference from the encompassing effect in the higher-up sections of the hall.

When accolades and stunning testimonials precede your arrival, you’d better deliver. Such was the case with piano soloist Lang Lang, who joined the Symphony for a memorable performance of Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Just 20 years of age, he is already being compared to Horowitz, and his concerts throughout the world are often described as “…history in the making.” After hearing him it would be hard to disagree. Lang Lang is a remarkably intense and energetic performer who wears all of his and the music’s emotions on his sleeve. Those who are put off by this personal display, might not enjoy watching this dynamo: pity for them. This is not an affectation or some ostentatious routine but an honest evocation of the spirit and love of the music. Even if you could not hear what he was playing, it was as if he spontaneously choreographed the score, and just watching his movements was alone enough to convey the emotion of the music. This Concerto, one of the great Romantic and romantic scores in all of music, is the perfect vehicle for him. If you didn’t feel the sweep and grandeur of this performance, then you’d better check your pulse. Sometimes just one great performer can raise the level of everyone in an ensemble, and that was apparent on this Friday night. The orchestra played with an energy and sensitivity that I have not heard before, due to both Lang Lang and Oundjian. There were several times during the most quiet and reflective passages when I heard something that I don’t ever recall hearing in a large concert hall; total and complete silence – no three-minute candy-unwrapping, no rustling of program notes, no whispering, and no coughing up a lung. There seemed to be such respect and sense of being witness to a transcendent performance that no one dared break the spell.

Gaudy superlatives perhaps, but entirely justified. There were also several moments where I could see several orchestra members meet the eyes of Oundjian and smile – they recognized the special quality of this performance also. At the conclusion the members of the audience exploded en masse as if they had been ejected from their seats. Lang Lang returned to play a lovely “Chinese Folk Song” by Han Wu. There was a buzz in the air at intermission that comes only from the realization that all present experienced a very special performance.

Sometimes, experienced concert goers will see a familiar work like the Symphony No. 9, in E minor (“From the New World”), by Antonin Dvorak, on a program and groan, “Not again!” I, however, believe this presents an even greater challenge to performers and conductors than a rarely- or never-heard work. Making the score seem fresh and new, bringing out lines and orchestration not readily apparent, and instilling excitement in 72 musicians who have probably played this work dozens of times is a challenge for any conductor.

Oundjian rose to the occasion and gave a vibrant, enthusiastic, and often revealing reading of this orchestral standard. The most well-known English horn solo, the haunting theme of the Largo movement, was played with a sensuous tone and beautiful phrasing by Michael Schultz. The woodwinds in general were exceptional in this movement, and here especially is where Oundjian seemed to control balance to bring out lines and phrasing that seemed revealing and new. I believe his conducting without a score brings a more immediate response and ability to truly listen, adjust and create a more spontaneous and dynamic performance. This was a great start to what will be a very protracted search. If the remaining “non-candidates” are of the same caliber as Oundjian, the search committee will have a very tough decision.