It was 11:29 p.m. when I returned home after last Saturday's Charlotte Symphony concert. I switched on the TV and soon saw Tina Fey portraying you-know-who. Then something unrelated to presidential politics dawned on me:
Andrew Grams, who had conducted the Charlotte Symphony that night, wasn't even born when “Saturday Night Live” went on the air.
Grams, at 31 – two years shy of “SNL” – is the second-youngest of the eight candidates vying to succeed Christof Perick as the orchestra's music director. Grams has come far enough to be guest-conducting major orchestras, but he's still new enough that he's giving his first performances of landmark orchestral works.
Grams didn't sound like a neophyte last weekend, though. He zeroed in on the exuberance and lyrical sweep of Antonin Dvorak's Eighth Symphony as confidently as if he knew the piece by heart – and maybe he actually did. He didn't turn the pages of his score with any regularity. He led the orchestra to play with much the same clarity and zest it did in the all-Tchaikovsky program he conducted in April 2007, when he was a last-minute replacement.
Well, there was one difference.
In his first visit, Grams worked a feat of musical craftsmanship: unleashing Tchaikovsky's thunderbolts without letting the brasses overwhelm the orchestra's undersized string section. This time, he didn't quite pull that off. In the Friday performance, the brasses sometimes took over, giving Dvorak a melodramatic tinge that he shouldn't have.
But on Saturday night, Grams and the orchestra were almost back to their Tchaikovsky form. As the symphony unfolded, the strings seemed more and more fired up – playing with that extra elbow grease that let them almost always ring out alongside the brasses. Grams and the orchestra also put an extra zest Saturday into the long-planned encore – a lusty Hungarian Dance by Johannes Brahms.
At the meet-and-greet with the audience after Saturday's concert, beaming players spoke up about Grams without my even asking.
They thought Grams gave Saturday's performance an extra spontaneity that made it fun; that he enabled the music to sing; that they could read from his hands what he wanted them to do, making rehearsals faster and concerts more enjoyable; that he empowered them to work out the music's technical challenges on their own. Coming from veterans who have watched conductors come and go, all that's high praise.
Of course, the orchestra's music director will also have a big task off the podium: helping turn around the group's financial troubles. That's what caused one of Saturday's concertgoers some concern. He said Grams was “marvelous with the orchestra” but struck him as introverted – making little eye contact with the players or audience as he entered and left the stage.
“Can he come in here,” the concertgoer asked, “and be the voice of the symphony?”
During a preconcert talk from the stage, Grams chatted easily about his background and viewpoints. Even that dubious concertgoer, after talking to Grams at the meet-and-greet, said, “You get it on a one-on-one basis.”
The orchestra's executive director, Jonathan Martin, is more familiar with Grams than anyone else in Charlotte. Before Martin took the job in May, he was an administrator at the Cleveland Orchestra, where he watched Grams launch his career with three years on the conducting staff.
Martin, too, said Grams' passion about music comes through best in face-to-face conversation. He added that the Cleveland Orchestra sometimes loaded Grams down with outreach work, giving him scant time to prepare or rest – and that he tackled it eagerly.
“He basically ate up everything we threw at him,” Martin said.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will throw a lot at its conductor, too. So here's something to keep in mind. Most of the candidates thus far have been noncommittal about whether they'd make Charlotte their home base. Only one has said that's “no problem”: Grams.