Christof Perick is having to miss his going-away concerts with the Charlotte Symphony. He and two of the solo singers booked to do Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with him this weekend are sitting on the other side of the Atlantic, held captive by airborne volcanic ash.
So the post-Perick era has begun a little early. If the first test of an orchestra's former music director is what survives him, Perick passed: The polish and vitality he cultivated in the orchestra over nine years as its leader represented him well Thursday night.
Stefan Sanderling, leader of the Florida Orchestra - and one of the not-chosen candidates to succeed Perick - stepped in. Whether or not Thursday night was a celebration of Perick, Sanderling made it a celebration of Perick's handiwork.
That was especially true in the Ninth's big finish, the "Ode to Joy." Sanderling and the orchestra didn't just pull out the stops and rely on the famous tune and fortissimo theatrics to put the music over. Instead, they gave the music a gleam and warmth that went to the heart of the ideal voiced in the poetry's most famous phrase - "all men shall be brothers."
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When the strings introduced the famous melody, they sang it out quietly and simply. The next time it came along, now with trumpets leading the way, it gained the first traces of excitement: It had a confident stride, without veering into swagger.
When bass soloist Jochen Kupfer stepped in, he and the orchestra gave the melody an airiness and spring that let it sound joyful in the most natural, uninflated way. When the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte took over the tune, they were exuberant but never shouted. Beethoven's hymn was full, ringing and majestic.
Yes, the orchestra brought out the bustling energy of Beethoven's contrapuntal outbursts, and the chorus wasn't afraid to open up. But they never made Beethoven bombastic. And whenever the singers came to the word "brueder" - brothers, from the all-important phrase - the way they softened their tone made the music reach out like an embrace. And Kupfer's fellow soloists - soprano Layla Claire, mezzo-soprano Frances Pappas, and tenor Steven Tharp - added their own jubilant tones.
If the freedom from bombast was welcome in the finale, a little ferocity might have added the right drama to the first two movements, with their bursts of storminess. But Sanderling and the orchestra still put over the music's tension, as well as the lyricism that Beethoven plays off against it. And the slow movement unfolded in the same natural, singing way that later made the finale so powerful.