A mere ten days after attending an all-Tchaikovsky concert at the Dvořák Festival in Prague, I found myself back at the Knight Theater, where the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was kicking off its 2019-20 classics series with a “Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits” program. Music director Christopher Warren-Green and orchestra’s marketing department were obviously wise in their choice of repertoire and prudent in their decision to schedule three performances, for the balcony was filled to the brim on opening night. Only after intermission, in the wake of Inon Barnatan‘s performance of the mighty Piano Concerto No. 1, did it become apparent that subscribers’ most fervid enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky had been quenched by the keyboard fireworks before the orchestra returned to play the composer’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. A few defections during the break exposed some newly empty seats.

Extra formality customarily adorns the opening concert of the season. Aside from maestro Warren-Green leading his musicians and his audience in the National Anthem, there is often a tribute to a retiring or long-serving member of the ensemble. This year, the occasion was touching and predictable, since former music director Leo Driehuys, the transformative figure who elevated CSO to professional status and strongly advocated for Charlotte’s Performing Arts Center, had died on August 14 at the age of 87. Double bassist Jeffrey Ferdon was given ample time to summarize the Dutchman’s personal accomplishments and community contributions. Driehuys served as music director from 1977 to 1993 and last performed with his orchestra in a special “Return of the Maestros” celebration of Symphony’s 75th anniversary in 2006.

When I double-checked my files later in the evening, I found that Driehuys’ valedictory, one of his livelier efforts, hadn’t been the same piece selected to open the new season, Pyotr Ilyich’s Capriccio Italien. No, it had been Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol – but the name and nationality of the music were sufficient to revive memories of Driehuys at his best. So was the performance, with sharp brass and sweet violins distinguishing themselves from the outset. As we reached the middle of the Italien, violins took on an airier tone and fresh infusions of percussion brightened the texture. Warren-Green had a fine grasp of the composition’s shape, so it built and accelerated naturally to a thrilling climax, zestfully pointed with Brice Burton’s tambourine and Ariel Zaviezo Arriagada’s timpani.

The excitement set the bar high for Barnatan when he appeared, yet the Israeli pianist did not disappoint. Barnatan was up to the pounding thunder of the concerto’s opening bars, and Warren-Green had the orchestra embracing the grandeur of their role. Yet the interpretation never devolved into a gladiatorial joust. On the contrary, Barnatan took every opportunity in the Allegro non troppo to sound responsive to the orchestral statements and to end his instrumental utterances in such a way that invited dialogue rather than demanding combat. Further, Barnatan emphasized Tchaikovsky’s dialectic within the piano solos and cadenzas, tamping down the composer’s showmanship just enough to reveal his sensitivity. All this was done without slowing the pace or descending into sentimentality. There were moments, in fact, when Barnatan delighted in prodding the tempo and brandishing hands of steel. In the middle Andantino semplice, principal flutist Victor Wang poignantly set the tone with a slightly thinned timbre that deliciously paired with principal oboist Hollis Ulaky’s lyricism. It was in the outer movements, however, that Barnatan made his freshest findings and lasting impressions. There were moments in the Finale where Barnatan’s impishness or modernistic syncopations contrasted with the rhapsodic sounds or clangor of the orchestral pronouncements. But there were also moments, particularly in the setup for the concerto’s rousing conclusion, when Barnatan’s bravura and volcanic power meshed perfectly with the orchestra’s majesty. Virile and raw-boned, this rendition by Barnatan and the Charlotte Symphony had thoughtful contours to it that might make you reconsider if you’ve previously concluded that this masterwork was overloaded with bombast. There was no palliative letup in Barnatan’s encore as he gave an incendiary account of the concluding Precipitato movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7.

While I must say that I was far more captivated by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 when the Czech Philharmonic played it under the baton of Semyon Bychkov on September 17, I must also interject that they had a better audience. Not only did a larger proportion of ticketholders return after intermission, they also had better control of their drinks. The opening Andante was punctuated by an epic cup drop in the rear orchestra that seemed to bounce on every step in the aisle before coming to a rest, and a gentleman sitting two seats away from me had no qualms about adding the crackle of ice in his plastic cup to the percussive effects that the composer had already provided. Principals and sections played beautifully on the Knight stage. Clarinetist Taylor Marino was outstanding in establishing the somber mood of the opening Andante – and exquisitely poignant at the conclusion of the ensuing Andante cantabile, its memorable theme beautifully introduced by acting principal French hornist Byron Johns. French horns blended admirably in the opening movement and the flutes charmed me in the penultimate Valse. But the ebb and flow of Tchaikovsky’s overall tapestry, convincingly rendered in that Cantabile, tended to unravel elsewhere, leaving us with beautifully played fragments that didn’t quite cohere. Although Symphony’s Valse was abundantly danceable, the build at the end of the opening movement didn’t remind me of the grand pas de deux in Nutcracker as vividly as it had in Prague. Even if I didn’t hear the same inevitability connecting the Andante maestoso with the Allegro vivace of the Finale – or any frantic energy midway through the movement – Warren-Green and CSO found the thread in time to deliver a satisfying ending, gloriously burnished with timpani and brass.

This program will be repeated on Saturday, September 29, and Sunday, September 30. See the sidebar for details.