To kick off 2005 the North Carolina Symphony’s music director laureate, Gerhardt Zimmermann, returned to the podium with a “lite” program minus guest soloist. The focus was on the dance, including Richard Strauss’s Suite No. 1, Op. 59 from Der Rosenkavalier, a collection of polkas by the members of the other musical Strauss family and the suite for string orchestra and piano, Las Quatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires) by tango composer Astor Piazzolla. The only non-dance related work was Tilll Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.

In this program of chestnuts, we had hoped that Piazzolla would make the whole thing worth turning off WCPE for, but in truth, Zimmermann failed to bring out the bite in the all the conflicting emotions embodied in the tango that he had promised in his remarks from the podium. Piazzolla composed the four movements at different times for his tango ensemble and neither Zimmermann, nor the orchestra players, seemed to feel comfortable with the atavism inherent in the tango. The performance needed more drama – even schmalz!

Before the start of the second half, Zimmermann and the orchestra paid a tribute to one of its members, long-time horn player Eileen Gress, who passed away last month after a long war with cancer. A moving rendition of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and a canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli for brass alone were a fitting tribute.

Back on the nineteenth century European track, where he is most comfortable and most effective, Zimmermann pulled out all the stops for the Strausses. The Suite from Der Rosenkavalier is loud, brash and cheerful, and so was the performance, although occasionally the balance between brass and strings tilted too far towards the brass. Three polkas by the dancing Strausses – Johann II, Johann I and Josef – evoked the high spirits of the recent New Year’s Eve concerts around the world.

For Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Zimmermann had a twinkle in his eye and the orchestra a twinkle in its sound. It was definitely the most polished and fitting performance of the evening.

As the NCS’s music director for over two decades, Zimmermann will certainly be no stranger as a guest conductor. Both Zimmermann and the Orchestra know how to bring an audience spontaneously to its feet, so we hope that future programs will be less glorified pops and more musically substantial.