The Charlotte Symphony’s Friday concert was one to remember. The Symphony’s candidate number four to replace retiring Christof Perick is a musician with a huge future. James Gaffigan, 29, is modest, restrained, yet exuberantly musical and by far the strongest candidate of the three seen by this reviewer. [I was unable to attend the concert of the first candidate, Edwin Outwater.]

Gaffigan, originally a bassoonist, studied at the La Guardia School for Music and Art, the Juilliard School (preparatory division), the New England Conservatory, and Rice University. He has already garnered an impressive collection of accolades, including co-winner of the Georg Solti International Conducting Competition in 2004, a conducting fellowship at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center, west of Boston, and study at the Aspen Music Academy. He is currently the Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (where the Music Director is Michael Tilson Thomas). Gaffigan has already conducted an impressive number of major orchestras, including both the Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony, as well as major orchestras in many other US cities and in major European cities.

The concert opened with a delightful and crisply clean presentation of the Ballet Music from the opera, Idomeneo, K.366, by Mozart. Infrequently heard, this suite of dances, mostly in triple meter, is a delight, and the orchestra was at its best. Delicate and precise playing from the strings and the woodwinds yielded to powerful attacks and a rousing finale in which the horns and the tympani threatened to over-power the ensemble.

Indeed, the horn duet at the beginning of the next work on the program, Samuel Barber’s lush Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, did overpower the soloist – at least as heard from the third row of the middle balcony (“Mezzanine”) of the Belk Theater. But the excellent violin soloist, American-born Elmar Oliveira, took center stage with his warm and vibrant tone. The first movement is a meditative dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, enlivened by a spritely figure which the program notes identify as a “Scottish snap.”

The beautiful and slender tone of the orchestra’s principal oboist, Hollis Ulaky, in a long and plaintive solo, started the second movement, which yielded some of the evening’s warmest and most expressive playing from soloist Oliveira. The Barber concerto has been heard more frequently in recent years, perhaps owing to the breathless and breath-taking pace of the last movement, a race between orchestra and soloist – which fortunately finished in an exciting tie last night! The audience responded with a cheer and a spontaneous standing ovation.

After intermission, and after I had moved down to the acoustically more rewarding lower balcony (“Grand Tier”), the orchestra and Maestro Gaffigan sailed through the familiar Ninth Symphony, Op. 95, of Dvorák, titled “From the New World.” This performance was perhaps more inspiring than many because Maestro Gaffigan was able to pace the tension and relaxation of each movement in terms of its relationship to the whole yet without neglecting attention to details. (I did miss the repeat of the first movement exposition, though!) The Scherzo was especially successful – there was no ragged ensemble to mar the subtle tempo changes. The softness of the triangle rolls added a shine and shimmer to the chords at the end of the trio. The Finale was every bit as exciting as it can be, with its revisiting of major moments of the preceding movements. I was only slightly disappointed that the young maestro chose Brahms’ tempo over Dvorák’s at the end – Brahms had proofed the plates at the request of publisher Simrock while Dvorák was still in the United States – but the juiciness of the dissonances is very effective, and was in this concert!

The search for the Queen City’s Music Director continues for another year, in which the committee might uncover another gem. But gems of the caliber of Gaffigan are rare! Charlotte should move fast! This man has a magnificent career before him. Let us hope Charlotte figures prominently in it.

This concert will be performed again, tonight, Saturday April 19, 2008 at the Blumenthal Center in Charlotte. For details, click here.