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Thierry Fischer and Symphonique Fantastique at Belk Theater 

Musicians of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra were lavishly wrapped in quality last Friday night. A couple of surefire classics were on their music stands for Halloween, Gabriel Faure's super-mellow Requiem and Hector Berlioz' greatest hit, Symphonie Fantastique. Behind them, on newly designed scaffolding, stood the mighty Oratorio Singers of Charlotte and the earth-shattering Belk Theater organ pipes, ready to blast out at last.

OK, scratch the organ: still on back order after 15 years. April fool! Trick or treat. But standing in front of our CSO musicians, aside from subscribers courageous enough not to be defending their homes from pillaging, were two guest vocalists making their Belk debuts and Thierry Fischer, arguably the most prestigious candidate for the Symphony music directorship ever to wield a baton in the Queen City.

So what went wrong? Nothing at all. The Oratorios sang gorgeously from the first note, more tightly knit than at last year's premiere of the Durufle Requiem out on Beatties Ford Road, where they helped christen the new organ (hallelujah) at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. Philip Cutlip, who sang the title role of Saul with CSO at Halton Theater last winter, and Ilana Davidson were both impressive in the Requiem baritone and soprano solos. Our Symphony played beautifully and without any serious gaffes, and the audience embraced every note. Beyond that, I found pure poetry in Fischer's gestures at the podium -- and a firm beat worthy of Christof Perick himself.

Still I was disappointed by Fischer, the presumptive front-runner if you factor in resume and audience enthusiasm. Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect something akin to the lightning of Frankenstein's lab at a performance of the Fantastique, or maybe there is true electricity lurking beneath Fischer's urbane exterior. But there were no flashes of illumination, no blinding colors, and no dazzling revelations.

Or at least there weren't any until I'd given up hope of anything special from Fischer. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky walked off into the wings before the pastoral third movement of the Berlioz and gorgeously played her half of the plaintive shepherds' duet -- without sounding even slightly different than if she'd been at her customary chair. Yes, I decided, there could have been a special distant poignancy there if Fischer had insisted upon it diligently enough, and the whole "Scene in the Country" could have been a smidge more vivid and magical. Like the entire concert preceding it.

But something began to smolder in the wake of Ulaky's duet with English horn principal Terry Maskin, just after the soft volley of timpani signaling the oncoming "March to the Scaffold." The beefed-up brass section -- two tubas, two trombones, two trumpets, and two cornets -- set up a hair-raising roar. And then principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo, with and without second clarinetist Allan Rosenfeld, set up the concluding "Witches' Sabbath" nightmare, adjusting timbre for exactly the mix of wickedness and revelry that exceeded my dreams.

Enough to ignite a wild standing ovation from CSO's subscribers. But not enough to convince me that Fischer brings the talent, the temperament, or the community commitment that would make him the best choice for the vacant music directorship. He strikes me as a younger Christof Perick on all three fronts, one who could lead the CSO into different musical frontiers and widen the horizons of subscribers. I just doubt he would form that special bond with the company and subscribers that would appreciably lift the quality of the music or our cultural scene.

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