The Charlotte Symphony performed an eclectic and exciting program in the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. The soloist and guest conductor both have venerable last names due to the renown of their fathers, Rudolf Serkin and Kurt Sanderling. Both sons now have successful careers of their own, carrying the torches of their forbears.

Peter Serkin, tall and lanky, performed two works which the Charlotte Symphony had never played before, Stravinsky’s Capriccio, an aptly titled concerto in three run-on movements, and Mozart’s Concert Rondo in D, K. 382. The Stravinsky is written for a large orchestra with all the extra woodwinds (piccolo, high Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, English horn, and contrabassoon), a reduced string section and tympani, yet the writing is sparse and soloistic – there is never a sustained big sound. The piece lives up to its title, playful and lively, never sentimental, and except for a couple of lyrical passages in the second movement, constantly in motion, a sort of moto perpetuo. The playing was brilliant throughout, from the complicated and probably very difficult piano part that Stravinsky wrote with himself in mind, to the witty solos of the woodwind players and the principal string players. 

The Capriccio was followed by the delightful and familiar Concert Rondo by Mozart, originally written to replace the last movement of his youthful fifth concerto. More a set of variations on a theme than a full-blown rondo, it provided a chance to hear the pianist’s marvelously subtle and nuanced playing that was not in evidence in the boisterous Stravinsky. Serkin played with a gentle “touch” which was especially moving in the fifth variation, a pianissimo Adagio. Exuberance spilled into the audience in the rollicking 6/8 variation, and after a cadenza and a couple of droll and deceptive trills, the 10-minute work came to a halt with a lively pizzicato coda.

Conductor searches invariably test the candidates with a dozen or so well-known works, yardsticks of a sort. This search is no different, and this season we have had a number of these “war horses:” the Firebird Suite, Tchaikovsky 5, and this weekend, Shostakovich 5.  In April, we’ll hear the “New World” and next season I predict Tchaikovsky 4, Beethoven 5, Prokofiev 5, Sibelius 2 and perhaps Franck’s D minor or Berlioz’s Fantastique. In this light, it is not surprising that all the candidates know and conduct these chestnuts very well; indeed, they are the building blocks of a conductor’s career.

Stefan Sanderling exceeded my expectations in this regard. He has a clear and understated conducting style which he uses to bring out subtle nuances in the softest hushed moments of this giant symphonic masterpiece. These quiet passages were among the best the concert had to offer – especially in the third movement where the celesta (which seemed in some need of repair) teams up with the harp’s harmonics very effectively. Yet he abandons this economy of style when he wishes to unleash the torrents of drama and fury which characterize Shostakovich. 

Maestro Sanderling was even more impressive in the short overture which began the evening, Mozart’s Overture to La Clemenza di Tito. The strings were warm and impeccably together and the woodwind duets (the second theme, twice) were charming and lilting.  Sanderling is a refined conductor, a musical poet, a musician’s musician. The only question is whether the Charlotte audiences prefer flamboyance to expressivity and showmanship to charm.