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Scylla, Charybdis and Outwater 

Mozart is one of the things that Charlotte Symphony Orchestra does best -- when their maestro, Christof Perick, is wielding the baton. If you need convincing, pick up the complimentary CD that CSO handed out at the beginning of the season, UBS Celebrates Great American Orchestras: Volume II. On track 3, our orchestra steams through the finale of the Jupiter Symphony in such rousing fashion that there's no lingering doubt that they can hold their own with the finest symphony orchestras in the nation, including Cleveland's (track 1), Boston's (track 6), and Chicago's (track 7).

Poor Minnesota (track 10) -- and some other prestigious ensembles -- are left eating our dust.

But Perick is leaving soon. So it's admirable that the first official candidate for the open slot to perform at Belk Theater this season, Edwin Outwater, began his program, ultimately a celebration of Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, with Mozart's Symphony #10. It was the first time that CSO had ever performed this sunny little work, penned by Wolfgang at the ripe old age of 14.

Could have been a welcome breath of fresh air, igniting a visceral appreciation of the prodigy's genius. Wasn't. Outwater shaped the performance smartly enough, and the trimmed-down ensemble reaffirmed that it can negotiate swift tempi with impeccable precision.

None of it was particularly vivacious or exciting, and those who entered the hall with an aversion to Mozart had their prejudices buttressed in stone. Even more disastrous was the performance of the "Love Scene from Romeo and Juliet" by Hector Berlioz. Subscribers who attended the 75th Anniversary "Return of the Maestros" concert last fall very likely remember the triumph that former CSO maestro Peter McCoppin scored with his rapt, sensuous reading.

Outwater's reprise quickly dispelled any hopes that those ambrosial sounds would return. With nearly doubled forces, the orchestra leaned more richly into the music, but the Outwater outcome was still surprisingly inert and passionless, without even cohesion to recommend it.

What we're looking for in a new music director, I'd assume, is a leader who can combine the precise Prussian drive of Perick with the lush Romantic enthusiasm -- and charismatic advocacy -- of McCoppin. Outwater seemed bent on navigating between those delicious depths as if they were Scylla and Charybdis.

Ironically, it's exactly that caution that plummets Outwater's candidacy to the ocean floor.

Things did get better as the evening progressed. Unlike the love scene, which sparked only briefly, Berlioz' "Rakoczy March" stayed lit after protracted sputtering, likely because the orchestra can play it in their sleep. Or the prospect of intermission got their juices flowing.

William Wolfram hulked onto the stage to play the solos in Cèsar Franck's Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra. Wolfram's intimidating presence was exactly what the doctor ordered. For if Outwater hasn't yet matured into a stirring leader, he seemed here to be a highly cooperative, empathetic accompanist. The lower strings, in particular, wrapped themselves in the spell of pathos that Wolfram wove. Really, the entire orchestra was exquisite behind even the wispiest pianissimos.

Some of the CSO's best soloists, especially principal oboist Hollis Ulaky, were able to strut their stuff in the original 1919 version of The Firebird Suite. The ensemble roared through the climactic "Infernal Dance" -- loud, fast, and infectiously toe-tapping -- by far the most excitement Outwater was able to whip up. In the glorious finale, the solo French horn had that mournful pristine quality that we associate with Copland at his best. There was more metronomic drive as Outwater & Co. built to the final bars; and less of the thrusting, pulsing, vernal bloom that Stravinsky himself delivered when he recorded (and conducted) this music; but the newborn/reborn's arrival, crowned with truly tight brass work, was still thrilling.

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