Eschewing the typical Music Director search repertory, the Charlotte Symphony in the Belk Theater presented a varied and unusual program with acclaimed pianist André Watts as soloist in Beethoven’s endearing Concerto No. 4 for Piano, Opus 58, in G. Bulgarian native, Rossen Milanov, was the guest conductor.

Maestro Milanov’s biography is impressive: Curtis, Juilliard, Duquesne; the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Bulgarian National Radio Orchestra, guest appearances around the world; Musician of the Year, Bulgaria, 2005…  He is young, tall and slender with long arms and legs. He maintains an economy of gestures – except for sudden ballistic gestures and a rigid posture and very stiff beats. At times he sways from the waist and often stomps his feet in loud passages. Unfortunately I was unable to attend a rehearsal to watch him with the orchestra, which is where the real work takes place.

This Beethoven concerto stands out in the repertory for a number of reasons: whereas most concertos begin with a long orchestral tutti in which the principal themes are presented, to be re-stated by the soloist, this concerto starts with the soloist, all alone, presenting the principal theme, only five measures long. Then the orchestral strings enter in a most unusual key, B major, in the very softest and most magical tone it can invent. (I was present at a rehearsal of the Orchestre de La Suisse Romande in the radio studios in Geneva, Switzerland, early in the career of Swiss conductor, Charles Dutoit. The soloist, the venerable Arthur Rubinstein, had just played the opening of the same concerto and when Dutoit brought in the strings. Rubinstein interrupted, “Charlie, Charlie…  Something else – as though from another planet!”)

Unfortunately, that other-worldly moment did not happen at this performance, and the strings were mundane and not even together in beginning the ensuing eighth-note passage. Happily, things got better as the evening progressed and orchestra and soloist intertwined, meshed and supported each other admirably.

The second movement is one of this reviewer’s favorite moments in music. The orchestral strings, playing in unison/octaves is gruff, almost violent in E minor and the piano, ethereal and mystical. They continue this non-dialogue through eleven iterations, the orchestra losing its animosity and impetus and eventually giving way to the serenity of the piano, which offers a tender soliloquy after which the lower strings alone replay the original passage below healing sostenuto chords in the appeasing upper strings.

The third movement, “Rondo: Vivace” is quick, spirited and lively, but starts atypically in C major, the sub-dominant of the original key of G. In true rondo fashion (think of verses and refrain) we are treated to a number of tunes of varying character, straying through the predictable keys. Conductor Milanov successfully plucked the ends of the two notorious solo scale “runs” out of the air for perfect entrances. And the final coda, in one, was brilliant for all concerned. Watts is a phenomenal pianist – if only he didn’t need to sing along while playing!

The second half of the concert started with Sergei Rachmaninov’s lugubrious “The Isle of the Dead,” inspired by one of five paintings by Arnold Böcklin portraying a rowboat, with casket, approaching a haunting island in the midst of a dark lake – a natural mausoleum. (See for image. ) This interesting work had its first Charlotte performances in these concerts and produced some of the best playing of the Symphony all year. Three major sections were apparent, the first in a rapid but monotonous 5/8 meter, which, as program annotator, Dr. Richard E. Rodda, suggests, represents the mournful rowing of the boat toward the isle. A dramatic middle section in 3/4 leads through chromatic progressions to a mighty climax and ushers in the Dies Irae which seemed to haunt Rachmaninov. The closing section, much shorter, recalls the uneven beat of the rowing section. Clearly this work inspired passion in Maestro Milanov, who in turn, brought the orchestra to impressive heights of sound. And the super-pianissimo ending, with its gentle closing cutoff was impressive.

The performance of Debussy’s La Mer was a bit more down to earth, less inspired, but nonetheless well played. The beginning was almost too soft for this hall with its imperfect acoustics and subsequently, lost its effect. Woodwind and brass playing were excellent, absolutely necessary in this piece. Like Neptune trumpeting on a conch, the many brass calls throughout were clean and clear. The cello section, despite being undermanned, was impressive in the divisi passage in the first movement. My only quibble would be with the conductor whose tempos tended to be less nuanced than the score calls for and tended toward the fast side.

The concert opened with a rarity, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Overture to Zaïs. Notable is Rameau’s orchestration of the Creation, Chaos (a muffles drum) and the four Elements. The orchestra’s sound was refined with the many woodwind interjections and commentaries, like sterling filigree.