Once a year the North Carolina Symphony pulls out all the stops. The annual gala concert has become a fund-raising tradition of a fancy meal, good wine, fine company, a big name soloist and familiar, comfy music.

This year’s gala brought to us the doyen of violin virtuosos, Itzhak Perlman. The one-time Wunderkind on the Ed Sullivan show is now an elder statesman, whose activities have branched out into conducting and advising. He does not do much performing anymore, and when he does, he usually sticks to a repertory of tried and true audience favorites. But he owed this appearance to the NCS. He had been engaged for the 2001 opening gala, scheduled for September 13.

The house was packed, the mood festive and relaxed, and Music Director Grant Llewellyn and the NCS in top form. Appropriately, the program opened with Mozart’s Symphony No.31 in D Major, the “Paris” symphony. Mozart composed it for a Gala concert in Paris on June 17, 1778. It was commissioned by Joseph Le Gros, the impresario of the foremost orchestral concert series in Paris, the Concerts Spirituels, whose large orchestra was the pride of the city. The orchestra had a large and well-disciplined wind sections, including clarinets, and this is the first symphony in which Mozart used this relatively new instrument. On the other hand, Mozart found the string sound abominable and feared for the life of his symphony. Nevertheless, the premiere went well with repeated applause. To conform to Parisian taste, the Symphony has only three movements.

But Le Gros did not like the Andantino movement. He found it too long and with too many modulations, and Mozart obliged him by writing a new one. Llewellyn turned the concert interactive by offering the audience a sample of both and giving the choice by a show of hands and voice (shout) vote which of the two to perform. The audience chose the  revised Andante. Llewellyn performed the original Andantino separately before intermission. The performance, especially of the two outer movements, was muscular and youthful.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture is a true showpiece for the orchestra, containing every cliché and Romantic excess of the late 19th century. The celestial harp, the martial drums and cymbals and the swooning love melody – Llewellyn milked them for all they were worth, and the audience loved it. Unfortunately, the performance of the Andantino movement of the Mozart symphony that followed became something of an anticlimax.

After intermission Perlman regaled the audience with half an hour of pure Schmalz. Dvorák’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra, Op.11 is a reworking of the slow movement of an early string quartet that was rejected by his publisher. It is a hauntingly beautiful melody introduced by the orchestra before the soloist picks it up. It presented an opportunity for some lovely interplay between Perlman and the orchestra, although the latter occasionally drowned Perlman out. Two Kreisler bonbons – Liebeslied and Liebesfreud – followed, tossed off by Perlman in a somewhat offhanded manner.

The final work, Saint-Saën’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op.28 has been a “must do” for violinists ever since Pablo de Sarasate premiered it in 1863. Perlman’s playing illustrated why audiences still hold their breath during his performances, especially during the coda.

As expected, Perlman’s technique is still impeccable and never ceases to amaze, the gestures are there, as well as the signature facial expressions. But somehow, the spirit has waned; the performance seemed at places detached. There were no encores, in spite of the enthusiastic standing ovation. It would have been nice had he had played something a little meatier, perhaps the Mendelssohn Concerto that was scheduled for his canceled appearance in 2001 and sufficiently popular to fit the occasion.

The guest soloist at next year’s gala, on March 25, will by one of the NCS’s favorites, Andre Watts. Mark your calendar and, if attendance at this concert was any indication, don’t procrastinate about ordering tickets.