The last time Andrew Grams led the Charlotte Symphony – in April 2007, as a last-minute replacement – he worked what almost ranks as alchemy. He guided the orchestra through a Tchaikovsky symphony in such a way that Tchaikovsky's trademark theatrics hit home, yet the orchestra's not-so-big string section was almost never drowned out by the brasses' exertions.
Grams came just a little short of that feat Friday. Capping off his tryout week as a candidate to be the orchestra's music director, he conducted another big 19th-century symphony: Antonin Dvorak's Eighth. This time, the music's outbursts were more about jubilation than Tchaikovsky-style angst. And this time, the brasses took over a few spots in a way that they hadn't in Tchaikovsky. Dvorak's excitement temporarily veered into histrionics.
Maybe a conductor can only work magic, or even near-magic, just so often. In any case, through most of this tuneful and endearing symphony, Grams led the orchestra to treat Dvorak to much the same ring, precision and vigor it had Tchaikovsky.
In a way, Grams handled Dvorak in much the same way as the previous candidate, James Gaffigan. As Gaffigan did in Dvorak's “New World” Symphony last spring, Grams put the music's sweep in the forefront. Neither conductor indulged the music's coziness and lilt as much as others sometimes do. (The fact that they're young Americans rather than mellow, veteran Europeans may have something to do with it.)
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But the music's vitality and sweetness still came through. Grams and the orchestra often let Dvorak move with a spring in his step. The tunes – especially the long, sleek one that sails out during the slow movement – sang out smoothly. And also during the slow movement, Grams did ease up so that the clarinets could lead off into a few moments of reverie.
Reverie had no place in Hector Berlioz's “Roman Carnival,” which opened the concert. Yes, the music had its lyrical turns – such as the English horn solo near the beginning, which Terry Maskin sang out generously. By and large, though, Berlioz dealt in whirling, headlong excitement, and the orchestra cut loose with an energy and sharpness that put it across.
Then Grams and the orchestra throttled back adroitly to meld with Ingrid Fliter, a young Argentine pianist, in Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto. The concerto is full of the poetry, yearning and ardor that are Schumann's trademarks, and Fliter had the free spirit they needed. Whether she was dashing through Schumann's flights of fancy or savoring a tender moment, Fliter made sure that the music always reached out – even if it was through a simple strand of melody. And she played with an ease that made even the liveliest parts sound big-hearted, not just showy.
In a spot or two, Grams and company were fleetingly out of sync with her. But most of the time, they shared her grace and pizazz. That set them up well for Dvorak.