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The Symphony and Omimeo 

It wasn't the Gershwin Brothers' "Stiff Upper Lip" that came to mind as Rossen Milanov stood at the podium and led the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in Jean-Philippe Rameua's "Overture to Zais." No, the physicality reminded me more of the Tim Burton's universe, Edward Scissorhands or Nightmare Before Christmas. Loo analogies I overheard at intermission, robot and wind-up toy, were slightly less flattering.

So after the eighth and final candidate for CSO's music directorship finished his audition, it was fair to wonder whether subscribers and board members would scratch "Robot" Rossen off their short lists of top contenders simply because of his stiff mechanics. Actually, the music that poured forth from the Belk Theater stage last Friday night was quite impressive.

Milanov avoided the tempo extremes that make the L'Oiseau-Lyre recording conducted by Christophe Rousset so memorable, but Symphony certainly had the wind in their hair when they gracefully reached maximum acceleration. Piccolos, oboes and bassoons swooped and soared rather thrillingly against the agitated violins. But poor Scissorhands was evoked once again when the freelancer at the harpsichord refused to take the bow Milanov proffered to him after the performance. I'd never seen anything like that in a concert hall.

Rigidity was less in evidence once the native Bulgarian exited the baroque idiom and proceeded with Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Debussy. Quibbles with the performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4 couldn't be aimed at the podium. Blame the second and third French horns for screwing up the intro in the opening allegro. Guest soloist André Watts certainly didn't improve things with his shaky take-off.

Once the venerable Watts proved fallible, everyone onstage seemed to relax and lock in. By the time Watts touched down at the end of his first solo, confidence was restored, and the big sounds he can make deep in the bass clef had their resounding ring as he took his second cue at the Steinway. Horns and winds coalesced behind him as his immersion weaved its spell. The middle movement was done slower than the marked andante, caressed by Watts' magical delicacy. All the better when orchestra and soloist went back to their power game in the closing rondo.

The tone poems after intermission -- sharp, cohesive and dramatic -- were the high points of Milanov's audition. Seven French horns, anchored by principal Frank Portone, did their part in establishing the dreary tone of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead, along with a fearsome phalanx of four trumpets, three trombones and a tuba. Tremolos from the violas rose up nicely from their subterranean source, mystically dispelled by solos from principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and concertmaster Calin Lupanu.

A bumpkin sitting behind me commented on the "atonality" of this piece during its CSO premiere, and afterwards consoled his wife with the prediction that Debussy's La Mer would be lighter. Sherlock may have revised his description when we climaxed at the "Dialogue between the wind and the sea." Brass, horns, winds and percussion were all magnifique. Milanov has a gift for sustaining expectancy -- and making sure we're rewarded with the necessary musical wallop.

Definitely a contender.

Omimeo has been wowing Charlotte audiences for over 30 years now, staunchly refusing to adopt "Mamma Mia!" as their theme song. Shoot, Hardin Minor and Eddie Williams are way too juvenile for such teen fluff, and Wachovia Playhouse rejoiced in their righteous silliness as the slapstick duo, joined by Drew Nowlin and The Great Fettucini, presented The Best of Omimeo last weekend.

I can't say that I recognized any of the shtick that Williams or Hardin carted out for their latest ImaginOn invasion, beginning with Williams' extended "Supermarket" mime. That was surely a blessing, for I shared the anklebiter perspective of encountering this toothsome pap for the first time. All four conspirators collaborated on some pasta percussion before branching out to pots and pans. Fettucini, alias Steve Langley, juggled a couple of bogus pizza doughs before we segued to faux-French cuisine via Bouillabaisse Charles and his peppy "Ballet Gourmet Show," a lampoon that lost its TV reference point long, long ago. But with Minor concocting his tres formidable toupee souffle, nobody minded in the least.

Fettucini mixed comedy with juggling feats that eclipsed his Pizza Hut exploits, and Nowlin performed a sequence of magic tricks that didn't. The juggling became more and more spectacular, culminating in a lights-out finale with Fettucini reprising his Chinese sticks and all hands onstage for an illuminated bowling pin juggle. That was after Williams worked the crowd into a frenzy handing out colored bells and leading the lucky bell-ringers inÖ hell, some dopey melody or another.

Best or not, viva Omimeo! My, my. Never ever let us go.

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