More than a decade ago, I heard an all-Mozart concert by the Charlotte Symphony in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. It was a rare trip east for them, sponsored by the Masons but poorly promoted. The overall impression was favorable but there was greater disparity among the regional orchestras in those years and the orchestra wasn’t playing at the same level as the NC Symphony at that time. Having finally found a bearable route to Charlotte, I could not pass up a chance to hear Brahms’ Double Concerto and to assess the acoustics of Belk Theater with musicians on the stage rather than in the opera pit. The May 3 concert ended up being full of surprises, many of them unprecedented in my concert-going experience.

The view of the stage from seats slightly right of center in Row D of the Grand Tier was striking. The décor of the horseshoe-shaped hall, with boxes, is carried over onto the full orchestral shell, which is dominated by a huge organ. I wonder how and where they store the organ console when the stage is set up for operas since Belk Theater has one of the few adequately-sized stages in the state. Most of the orchestra was seated on concentric risers.

With the number of musicians reduced for the first work, the Charlotte premiere of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 39, in G (1768), guest conductor Grant Llewellyn had all the players (except the cellos, bassoon and basses) stand. This being Post 9/11, I suspected a “classical” rendition of the National Anthem too, but they launched directly into the Symphony. Tempos throughout were ideal and there was extraordinarily detailed string articulation and unity of phrasing. Four horns were paired off at the opposite rear corners of the stage. The unamplified harpsichord, presumably played by Frederick Boyd, often served as part of the bass line and could be readily heard in exposed passages. The two violin sections were exceptionally together, playing flawlessly as one where appropriate in the second movement. Near the end, the fine viola section was briefly exposed, alone. The horns, oboes and bassoon formed a lovely trio in the Menuet. The fast pace of the finale revealed the sure fingering and bowing of the strings in some delightfully contrasting parts for the first and second violins along with wonderful scoring for horns and oboes.

Llewellyn’s experience as Music Director of Boston’s distinguished Handel & Haydn Society was most telling.As part of a witty skit to thank subscribers and drum up renewals, the tuning of the orchestra was superintended, unexpectedly and comically, by tuba player (and librarian) David Mills. In addition to highlighting the 2003-4 season, he praised Music Director Christof Perick (now completing his third season) for “his sense of phrasing and color and, above all, his ‘instrumental diction’,” which the level of solid musicianship heard this evening seconded.

I filled a page with notes about the many felicities that abounded in Llewellyn’s interpretation of the Suite from Háry János , Op. 15, by Zoltán Kodály. The clarity of the orchestration that makes up the famous opening “sneeze” was astonishing. Balances, string articulation, phrasing, etc., were ideal, and there was a vivid sense of the musicians giving their all. Percussionist Christopher Deane was kept busy dashing between his cimbalom solos downstage, center, and his rear-stage involvement with cymbals and other instruments. Playing an authentic Hungarian melody, the rich and soulful solo viola of Alice Merrill Kavadlo evoked the homesickness of Háry and his sweetheart for their Hungarian village. Fine solos were given by principals Frank Portone, horn, Hollis Ulaky, oboe, an unidentified alto saxophone player, and Alan Black, cello. Most memorable was the truly breathtaking, long-held “ppp” note played by three horns near the end of an early movement; their matched intonation was flawless. Llewellyn asked a lot of these musicians and they delivered a quality performance for him – and how wonderful it was to be in a hall that allowed such details to be heard by discerning music lovers!

Llewellyn then announced a wholly unexpected treat – almost unprecedented in my experience: an encore at the end of the first half of the concert. Since they had the cimbalom on hand, Deane soloed in one of the rare works featuring the instrument, Debussy’s own transcription of “Le plus que lent,” described as a waltz for cimbalom, piano, flute, clarinet and strings. This was completely unknown to me in this form, and it proved to be a delight. I look forward to hearing this conductor tackle the major French repertory. While I had a rosier opinion of his first outing with the NC Symphony than my CVNC colleagues who reviewed the concert, nothing had prepared me for the qualities I heard in Charlotte.

“Surprise,” as a theme of the evening, did not end there! I had expected to hear violinist Julian Rachlin join cellist Han-Na Chang for Brahms’ Double Concerto, in A Minor, Op. 102, but with no prior press release, substitute violinist Kyoko Takezawa appeared onstage. (Rachlin was recovering from recent surgery.) What ensued was one of those rare evenings when everything goes perfectly. Takezawa, Chang and the orchestra played together and off each other in a way seldom heard outside of chamber music. Chang has an astonishingly full and rich cello sound, and she played entirely without a score. Takezawa had been impressive when she appeared in the Triangle on the NC Symphony’s series and when she gave a recital on the Duke’s Artists Series. The full burnished tone of her “Hammer” Stradivarius (dated 1707) was a match for Chang’s. Their interaction brought out a fiery intensity in Takezawa that had not been noticed in her earlier appearances. Llewellyn brought out the full kaleidoscope of color and texture in Brahms’ score.

A true and prolonged standing ovation was rewarded by a no-holds-barred performance by Takezawa and Chang of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia. The “high” from this wonderful evening of fully “alive” performances carried me well past my three-hour drive across a deserted Piedmont, and I look forward with relish to Grant Llewellyn’s return to Meymandi Concert Hall as one of the NC Symphony’s four candidates to succeed Gerhardt Zimmermann. Both soloists heard on this occasion ought to be high lists of potential soloists for our regional orchestras. Chang was astounding and ought to be booked while presenters can still afford her.