It is rare that we are given gifts for someone else’s birthday, but on March 25 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart bestowed upon the audience gathered at the Belk Auditorium some precious jewels from his vast treasure trove. The bearers of these gifts were none other than the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra under the masterful direction of Christof Perick along with pianist John Nakamatsu. In a belated celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday, the group performed some of the most challenging and engaging works in his catalog. Over the past few months there have been hundreds of galas, concerts, and festivals worldwide in honor of this incomparable genius, and this one can certainly be counted among the most well done.

The great conductor Hans von Bülow once said, “There are two types of conductors, those with the score in their head, and those with their head in the score.” Perick is among the former. He conducted from memory and with exceptional success. He has wonderful stage presence and charisma and seems to enjoy making music. This was especially evident in the opening work, the Overture to The Magic Flute, K.620. This charming opera was written in 1791, the last year of Mozart’s life. What stark contrast there is between this flamboyant comedy and the somber Requiem, written later that same year. The overture mirrors the opera and features comedy, but with a sense of some lesson to be learned, as in the fugal section, where the orchestra did an exemplary job balancing the two. Perick designed a performance that brought out the magic and made it tangible without being fluffy or far-fetched. It was made evident throughout the evening that Perick’s Mozart is meat and potatoes, not cucumber sandwiches!

John Nakatmatsu’s career took off with a victory at the Van Cliburn competition in 1997. Since then his tours have taken him throughout the United States and Europe with much acclaim. He chose to play for this program the longest and arguably the most difficult of Mozart’s piano concertos, the 26th, in D Major, K.537. The piece was written for the coronation ceremony of Leopold II, although it was not performed there.

Nakamatsu had a clear interpretation of the work and achieved a straightforward reading without the usual romantic tendencies. The cadenza at the end of the first movement was tossed off with vim and vigor. The larghetto movement had a tendency to drag a bit but was imaginative and retained its profundity. A concerto can very easily become a battle between the orchestra and the soloist, and sometimes this is the desired effect, but it can spiral out of control, especially in Mozart. Here Perick wins the gold medal, controlling his forces with the stern hand of a general. Sonorities, now subtle, now roaring, were perfectly matched to the propensities of the soloist. Nakamatsu played the final movement tastefully and, overall, showed himself to be an astonishing technician and interpreter in the manner of Vladimir Ashkenazy. After three curtain calls, he bent to the will of the masses and played a most surprising encore. One would have expected the Rondo alla Turca at an all-Mozart concert, but we were given Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66. It was an incredible display and demonstrated the pianist’s ability to change styles quickly and seamlessly.

After intermission, Perick took the stage and gave some comments on the evening’s program. He spoke about the history of the works being performed and made a thoughtful statement by saying that Mozart, though accessible to all, is not in any way easy to execute on an orchestral level. Listening to the final piece, the Symphony No. 40, in G minor, K.550, it was easy to see what he meant. He made the work completely transparent: every note was pristine and absolutely without opacity. Clarity such as this is rarely achieved and makes Mozart all the more delectable. The different orchestral sections crafted a tension in the first movement, pulling against each other with such tenacity that the music became elastic, like a rubber band ready to snap at any moment. The heartrending minuet was depicted with dark rhythmic shades and tempi relevant to the tragic theme of the movement. The finale had gusto and, once again, unparalleled clarity. Among other things, it takes courage to open yourself up like Perick and the CSO chose to do. There were some awkward moments, some phrases that were rushed, and some rhythms that could have been a little tighter, but the anxiety, the happiness, and the tragedy of Mozart’s life were fully realized through this performance of his music. Truly, this was a birthday celebration with which the immortal genius himself would have been pleased.