A Seattle legend with multiple Emmy Awards and Grammy nominations to his credit, Gerard Schwarz has also been principal conductor and musical director at the Eastern Musical Festival up in Greensboro for the past ten summers. So it's somewhat surprising that his debut with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has waited until the winter of 2015. After impressively releasing two old warhorses from the barn before intermission, Rossini's Overture to Guillaume Tell and Liszt's Les Préludes, it's unlikely that Schwarz will need to wait another decade before making a return engagement at Belk Theater. He and his son, cellist Julian Schwarz, continued to impress after the break as the soloist took on the title role in Richard Strauss's tragicomic tone poem, Don Quixote, with CSO principal violist Benjamin Geller stewarding as the aging knight's loyal Sancho Panza.
It may have been tempting to bring on the guest soloist for the melodious intro to the Rossini overture, but CSO principal cellist Alan Black was an eloquent advocate and principal timpanist Leonardo Soto layered on forebodings of the drama to come. The turbulence came with a wild fury topped by a brass corps of two trumpets and three trombones, followed by the familiar vernal episode of the piece, marked by a sweet dialogue between Terry Maskin's English horn and Amy Whitehead's flute. Heraldry from the brass was thrilling leading into the climactic episode, driven by Schwarz père at a furious militaristic tempo with an unusually strong emphasis on the percussion.
Classics subscribers hadn't been treated to Liszt's most-admired orchestral creation at the Belk since 2006, and Schwarz's account, less grim and pompous than the performance of guest conductor Gregory Vajda nine years ago, had a more open American feel. Again there was a martial aspect to the brass early in the piece, followed by a sweet dialogue between principal harpist Andrea Mumm and the French horns in the lyrical interlude. A streak of playfulness permeated the strings in the placid midsection of the piece that the horns subtly stirred into turbulence. The thrust of the brass drew a rally from the violins as Liszt's symphonic poem morphed into its majestic return to its awesome theme. Once again, brass and percussion teamed effectively under Schwarz's baton, notably crisp in their stateliness.
While the Knight of the Woeful Countenance is mounted on an old warhorse throughout his epic adventures in Cervantes' classic novel, Strauss's Don Quixote is hardly a staple in CSO's repertoire, first introduced by Christof Perick in 2008 during the latter days of his tenure. Yet Perick was a champion of the German composer throughout his years in Charlotte, completing a full traversal of Strauss's great tone poems over the course of his musical directorship. The impact of Perick's advocacy is evident in the frequency that Strauss is now heard at the Belk. With Ein Heldenleben presented back in October and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme upcoming in February, Strauss is getting as much play this season as Sibelius, another modern who has a sesquicentennial during 2014-15.
Evidently, both the orchestra and the Schwarzes share Perick's zest for the music, reveling in the episodic impulsiveness of the score rather than half-heartedly piecing it all together. The stellar work by CSO wind principals Eugene Kavadlo, clarinet, and Hollis Ulaky, oboe, in the pastoral passages of the Introduction, lead a procession of fine spots that punctuated that section and the ten themed variations that follow. Sancho was a complex sidekick, sometimes a simple Eulenspiegel-like gesture from Kavadlo, at others, an elixir that a tenor tuba and Allan Rosenfeld's bass clarinet brewed. When cellist Lynn Harrell portrayed the elderly knight-errant in 2008, Nokuthula Ngwenyama seemed somewhat under-utilized guesting on viola. Geller remains in his usual seat within the ensemble, parleying at times with the other members of Team Sancho but also engaging with Julian Schwarz and soloing memorably on his own, particularly when Panza briefly kicks up his heels and dances.
Schwarz fils proves to be quite formidable when he emerges, wearing the knight's woefulness on his sleeve as soon as he emerges from beneath the sound of the orchestra. There is longing and sublimity in his overtures to his idealized Dulcinea, maniacal fury in his various delusional assaults, and tragic eloquence in his despairing defeats. Most moving, however, is Schwarz's depiction of Quixote's death, by turns poignant, aching, and as ethereal as Mumm's harp, which cues the final episode. The pianissimos from the cellist are delicate indicators of the hero's failing strength, pauses in his solo mimic his last gasps, and a quietly descending glissando marks his final expiration. Schwarz père shaped all the orchestral moments beautifully, but perhaps the strangest and most special was Variation VII: The ride through the air, with Erinn Frechette's piccolo signaling takeoff.
This program will be repeated January 17 in the same venue. For details, see the sidebar.