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Perick Silences the Moneyed Morons 

Christof emerges a hero

Up in the grand tier, well-heeled Charlotte Symphony subscribers in Rows F and H must have thought that last week's concert had ended at intermission. True, Stephen Hough, in his fourth guest appearance with the orchestra, had turned Mozart's Piano Concerto #24 into a gleaming sacrament. There have been times in the past when the CSO has risen superbly to the occasion, accompanying an internationally renowned soloist, only to recede afterwards into lame mediocrity. Maybe that's why there was whispering in the row ahead of us as the CSO and their new music director, Christof Perick, launched into Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life"). Maybe the hero's theme sounded a bit radical for the patrons seated behind us -- their idiotic jabbering continued well into the opening episode.

But eventually the stream of melodic glories emanating from the Belk Theater stage subdued the whispering and jabbering of the moneyed morons. Oh yes, they should have known better -- on more than a couple of levels. For it was last October that Perick ignited the PAC with a thrilling rendition of Strauss's famed Also Sprach Zarathustra, a performance that nailed down his new post.

And after an up-and-down season opener last month, Perick & Company had started off brilliantly on Carl Maria von Weber's "Overture to Oberon." Frank Portone's lovely and forlorn French horn lingered, in the lyrical opening, until blanketed by transparent textures from the winds and the strings. There was powerful kick and scintillating sharpness as the entire ensemble abruptly shifted from a quiet brew of slow and moderate tempi to a boisterous, galloping presto.

A slight tightness was evident when Portone returned, and it carried over into the clarinet solo and the violin filigree. The ensuing accelerando was better until it was torpedoed by sputtering trombones. That was really the last serious problem I heard all night. Again there was marvelous ensemble sharpness -- at an irresistibly brisk tempo -- as the CSO romped home to the end of the Weber. Sound was buoyant and clear with none of the muddiness I've heard in the past when the group gallops at full volume.

Perick trimmed his forces conspicuously to accompany Hough in the C minor concerto. The reduced forces played elegantly, retaining their keen focus, ushering in Mozart's allegro. Hough was beautifully expressive, as always. When he reached the bravura passages, he resisted the urge to raise his volume to show off his speed. Eventually, we were rewarded with modest fireworks as Hough frisked through some bass runs, but the cadenza was starkly hushed and intimate.

The jeweled perfection continued into the larghetto, sparer than ever. So sparse was the orchestral answer to Hough's exquisite lyricism, you'd swear this was chamber music. Virtuosity was ratcheted up a notch for the concluding allegretto, building steadily in showers of clear crystal to longhair intensity. Winds had a nice bounce and blend as the accompaniment broke loose. Hough's final hushed cadenza slowed to a halt before a rousing build triggering the final entry of the orchestra. A powerful ending, but not flashy enough to bring the Charlotte audience to its feet.

Before last Friday, the CSO had never played the Mozart -- and their only previous performance of Ein Heldenleben was almost exactly 25 years ago. Perick bulked up for the Strauss, not only bringing back the rest of the CSO but adding 16 musicians especially for the occasion.

Notwithstanding the skepticism and inattention up in the grand tier, our introduction to "The Hero" had impressive builds and momentum. The winds issued an evocative percolation transitioning to the section unveiling "The Hero's Adversaries." Lower strings were powerfully morose as the upper strings and winds fretted and fluttered above them.

But it was probably concertmaster Jinny Leem's ardent violin cadenzas in "The Hero's Companion," magically introducing the wife, that began to convince the skeptics that we were witnessing something special. Fireworks breaking out in "The Hero's Battlefield" cinched it. Trumpets that had exited during Leem's solos sounded the distant call to battle from behind the stage. The angularity of Strauss's rhythms and the insistent tattoo of the snare drum simulated the conflict and the excitement. Lower strings and the returning brass added to the turbulence. What a tutti!

Luminous harp arpeggios ferried us into the mesmerizing pastoral section, "The Hero's Works of Peace," wherein Strauss quoted Till Eulenspiegel and numerous other hits he'd composed by 1898. There was a marvelous weave of different instrumental colors here -- including a tuba draped with a baggy -- and some gorgeous oboe from Hollis Ulaky. The closing "Hero's Retreat from the World" was beautifully launched by a bevy of bassoons scored to sound like bagpipes and a violin melody as open and airy as anything written by Copland.

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