The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was in transition, playing with a guest conductor, when Karen Gomyo made her debut at Belk Theater in 2009 with Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. She returned this time with the orchestra far more settled, collaborating with a maestro, Christopher Warren-Green, who is entering his fourth season at the helm, and armed with four more years of experience – and fellowship with her wondrous Stradivarius. Following upon Mozart's Overture to Don Giovanni, Gomyo was the featured soloist in Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No. 3, drawing an ovation upon completing the opening Allegro non troppo movement. Once again, Gomyo managed to upstage the music that came after intermission. Back in 2009, Gomyo's triumph was largely by default, with CSO's subscribers fleeing ignominiously in droves rather than facing the prospect of Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony. This time, she was more than holding her own with repertoire that subscribers actually savored, Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique," in a performance that drew a midstream ovation of its own after the penultimate Presto.
The Mozart, sharply played and artfully shaped, hinted at the marvels that would come afterward from the first blast of the ensemble over the rumble of Leonard Soto's timpani. For the Giovanni overture, Warren-Green brought out a larger ensemble – and a beefier string section – than we've seen for some of the CSO's recent Mozart performances. When we reached the climactic face-off between the strings and the trumpets, laden with portents of the ghostly Commendatore decreeing Giovanni's undoing, the extra heft paid off handsomely. Until then, dialogues among the string sections and between the strings and the winds were very crisp, presaging the stealthy machinations of the scandalous Don more vividly than the comedy of his conquests. As we waited for Gomyo's entrance, the orchestra swelled to fuller size, taking on a trio of trombones and added strings.
Written for legendary virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, the Saint-Saëns No. 3 comes loaded with a dark gypsy flavor reminiscent of Sarasate's own showpiece, Zigeunerweisen, and with nearly comparable virtuosic fireworks in the outer movements. Gomyo's reading of the opening Allegro non troppo was possibly the darkest and richest I've heard, live or on record, perhaps because Warren-Green offered her the most leisurely tempo, unquestionably the slowest I've encountered overall. The Tokyo-born violinist authoritatively nailed the early double stops, playing the expository passages with gleaming tone, spiked with predatory crests. Soft episodes were equally fearless and fine, marked by brilliant phrases that frequently ended with sweet meringue-like peaks or crisp head-snapping releases, with sensational highs and a couple of beguiling glisses along the way.
The CSO's wind players came more to the fore as we moved to the Andantino movement, flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead and oboist Erica Cice nicely answering Gomyo's warm and enticing greeting. Gomyo's eloquence softly swayed the 3/4 tempo, with the entire wind section beautifully together behind her as we reached the ethereal cadenza. It hovered gracefully over another fine spot from Cice and then – in fluty harmonics – fell into step with Drucilla DeVan's clarinet. Warren-Green's leisurely way with the tempo didn't compromise the closing Molto moderato maestoso, where Gomyo forced me to heap on more superlatives with her élan and bravura, delivering the familiar theme with admirable dash, frolicking up in the treble and driving the orchestra without yielding to the temptation of making this a march. She was no less magisterial when taking her respites in lyricism, but it was in her Gypsy swagger and avoidance of regimentation that she separated herself from the pre-eminent recordings I've heard. (Chee Yun's recording on Denon comes the closest to approximating what we heard at Belk Theater while Itzhak Perlman's account on DGG is the most cogent and persuasive among those with divergent ideas about the score.)
Warren-Green displayed considerable individuality of his own in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, above and beyond his sluggish tempos, aided by a cluster of fine performances from the CSO woodwind principals and the continued stellar section work from the strings, winds, and brass. Mary Beth Griglak made her first appearance of the night at the first bassoon chair, launching the symphony with a doleful plaint. We remained at mezzo piano until the first blast of the brass, and we smoothly subsided into the eloquence of the violas. Other conductors give us a full rest before the second statement of the bassoon, but only Rozhdestvensky has an inkling of Warren-Green's idea: having the violins come forth out of complete silence with their big tune, blooming with exquisite softness as it swells to full volume. That moment was nearly as devastating as the sudden inrush of the brass after Eugene Kavadlo poignantly took his restatement of the big tune to a soft sunset at the lowest reaches of his clarinet. There was more fine work from the principal clarinetist after the hubbub of the opening Adagio-Allegro died down, and we reverted to the opening tempo with a lovely brass chorus and a fadeout of winds, horns, and brass.
Everything in the Russian masterwork flowed naturally and colorfully without ever seeming to drag, though the overall performance clocked in minutes longer than the longest I could find by Bernstein, Temirkanov, and even Celibidache. Cellos warmly introduced the dancing Allegro con grazia before the violins added more sparkle. The violins continued to steer our emotions, gaining more gravity with the input of the winds, brass, and timpani before circling back into graciousness and pleasure. Only in the penultimate Presto would I suggest the more rapid pacing of my two favorite "Pathétique" recordings by Mariss Jansons on Chandos and Mikhail Pletnev on Erato. Fully deserving of its lusty ovation as it gradually built to its climactic thunder, the Warren-Green march still didn't reach the jubilee liveliness Jansons explores or the borderlands of despairing madness that Pletnev invades. As a result, the anguish of the concluding Adagio lamentoso-Andante didn't contrast as tellingly as it might have with the preceding march. But that anguish was surely palpable, tipped with the final flourish of the brass, and when Tchaikovsky's spirits gave way to weak, pitiable pathos in a valedictory chorus of French horns led by Frank Portone, the effect was still stunning.
The CSO's season continues with "Bachtoberfest!" on October 25. For details, click here.