After hardly more than a hello, Christof Perick lets out what's on his mind.
"Ten years!" he says. "A nice time."
Strictly speaking, it's only nine years since he became the Charlotte Symphony's music director. But if you go back to the guest-conducting visits in 2000 that won him the job, 10 fits.
The end comes this week, when Perick conducts his last performances as the orchestra's leader.
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Since taking charge in September 2001, he has led roughly 60 concert programs. They've included copious amounts of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - music that's not only the foundation of the orchestral repertoire, but prime material for honing an orchestra's skills.
That's what Perick was hired to do: cultivate the Charlotte Symphony. And that's what he focuses on as he surveys his years with the orchestra.
"Together," Perick says, "we worked hard and got to a point where there was not much more possible musically... I have a good feeling looking back."
Listeners ranging from veteran Charlotte music lovers to Perick's successor, Christopher Warren-Green, have applauded the improvement he has made in the orchestra's playing. Yet it came amid hard times.
Perick's opening concerts as director came less than two weeks after 9-11. The economic downturn linked in part to the attacks helped set off deficits that the orchestra has yet to conquer. The players, who had taken pay cuts during 1990s troubles, won raises in a contentious 2003 contract negotiation - which included a two-month strike. They later took pay cuts as the financial woes intensified. Tight budgets limited the music Perick could program.
But Perick won't dwell on hardships.
"Forget the strike and the darker side and the problems here and there," he says. "That's natural. That happens everywhere."
He speaks from experience.
Perick, born and trained in Germany, had guest-conducted a variety of U.S. opera companies and orchestras by 1987, when the Orchestra of Illinois - then Chicago's No. 2 orchestra - signed him as its first music director. But money ran out before Perick could even start. In 1991, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra hired him as leader. Three years later, long-shaky finances forced the group to cut back so severely that Perick bowed out.
"It was painful," he recalled in 2007.
No one would've guessed that hardships could be in store for Charlotte or its orchestra when Perick first conducted here. The city was booming.
The orchestra was looking for a successor to Peter McCoppin. Perick visited twice in 2000. He thought the orchestra had potential. The orchestra's leaders, impressed with the impact he made on its playing, chose him.
Perick's assignment: Improve the orchestra.
The task appealed to him.
"I have had my share of conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and other world-class orchestras," he told the Observer in 2000. "I'm more interested now in building up a middle-class orchestra... What I would love is to bring my experience into a group like this."
No substitute for practice
When he took over, Perick played up German and Austrian music from Joseph Haydn onward. Besides being the core of the symphonic repertoire, it was music he had been immersed in since youth. He considered it ideal for polishing the orchestra - especially because of the precision and vitality that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven demand.
Much of the Haydn and Mozart turned up in the chamber-orchestra series. When the financial troubles eventually squelched those concerts, Perick lamented it. But the orchestra still backs him on the ingredient he considered essential: rehearsal time.
Many orchestras might devote three rehearsals - typically 21/2 hours long - to a program. Perick typically had four or five.
"It would be easy to say, 'Well, we'll only have three rehearsals. We'll get through it.'... The orchestra is very clever and fast. But it would not help the quality," Perick says. "The quality can only be built by serious work."
Despite the eventual limits on spending, Perick took the orchestra through much of the core Germanic orchestral repertoire, including the major Haydn and Mozart symphonies; all the Beethoven symphonies but one; all the Brahms symphonies; and most of Richard Strauss' major tone poems. He also served up occasional helpings of music from other countries, notably France and Russia.
Perick sums it up simply. "We really did a good share of good music," he says.
To celebrate the orchestra's 75th birthday, Perick joined the five music directors who preceded him for a concert in November 2006. Perick and the orchestra ended the night with Mozart's buoyant "Linz" Symphony. It wasn't the splashiest music on the program, but it made a big impression on Leo Driehuys, who led the orchestra from 1977 to 1993. He marveled at what Perick drew from the players.
"He knows what he's doing," Driehuys said.
'Have to see a new face'
One of Perick's mentors was the German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, who led the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1990s. Sawallisch laid down a rule about heading orchestras.
"Sawallisch always told us, 'No more than eight or 10 years. They have to see a new face. And you have to get new challenges.'"
When Perick announced in November 2006 that he would step down, he suggested the orchestra replace him with someone who would live in Charlotte and become a figure in the community - rather than shuttling in and out, as Perick did between here and his home in Germany. Orchestra leaders evidently agreed. As soon as Warren-Green was picked, he began preparing to move to Charlotte this summer.
To be a public figure has become "the major role" for the conductors of American orchestras, Perick says, "because all that counts for us in the next decade is support." Yet he thinks music plays into that. Donors want to be associated with quality, he says, especially on the main Classics series.
"I hope they can have these 10 weeks a year of Classics concerts on a top, serious level... Mr. Warren-Green will insist on the same serious level, I hope."
Preparing for Bruckner
Perick has two jobs back home in Germany to occupy him. He's the chief conductor of the Nuremberg State Opera, and he teaches conducting at the Hamburg conservatory, his alma mater. He also has guest-conducting to do: Next week, he'll be in southern France to lead the Orchestre Symphonique de Nice.
But this week, Perick finishes in Charlotte. He'll say goodbye with Beethoven's Ninth, the same work that inaugurated his term as the orchestra's leader. It should be good for the orchestra's coffers, Perick says. And it's one of the pinnacles of the Germanic tradition that he championed in Charlotte.
He'll continue to champion it next season, when he returns with a new title - conductor laureate - to lead one set of concerts. The program: works by Richard Wagner and Wagner's No. 1 admirer among composers, Anton Bruckner.
In Europe, where Bruckner is more of a staple, his admirers find spiritual depths in his spacious, sonorous music. But Americans have a harder time hearing that, Perick notes. He'll try to win them over with the Third Symphony. The night before the first concert, he'll host an open rehearsal in which he'll tell the audience about Bruckner, the alpine landscapes that inspired him, and the roots of his music in Wagner and other sources - such as a lilting Austrian folk dance called the landler.
"I'm still interested in trying to give it a chance," he says. "Is Bruckner's music hopeless for American audiences? Or is there a chance to make them Bruckner fans?"