Reflecting on a year of music, leadership

He conducted the national anthem before a Panthers game. He helped create a concert series that uses multimedia, socializing and food to spice up the experience. He led a summer concert in the rain.

Whether or not he actually stepped in any puddles that night at Symphony Park, Christopher Warren-Green has gotten his feet wet since taking over the Charlotte Symphony a year ago.

In indoor concerts, Warren-Green has ranged from Beethoven and Brahms to an all-Gershwin concert to a performance of "The Planets" accompanied by video of celestial orbs. Offstage, he has joined in with the years-long effort to restore the orchestra's financial health.

As a warm-up for his second season - which opens Friday - let's look where we went together during his first year and where we're headed.

Music lovers who've been in Charlotte longer than I have always told me Christof Perick, Warren-Green's predecessor, spurred the orchestra to play with more polish and style than it ever had. The orchestra certainly gained during the 7 1/2 Perick seasons that I heard.

So Question No. 1 for me when Warren-Green arrived: Would he keep up the standard?

He did.

Making his mark

Warren-Green may not have realized it, but he conducted a couple of works that Perick had done only a few years before him. Warren-Green maintained the polish, yet added his own mark.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, for instance, culminated in a pull-out-the-stops finale that boasted the most dashing playing I've ever heard from the Charlotte Symphony. Outside Perick's turf, in Grieg's "Peer Gynt," the orchestra's strings played with a tenderness beyond any they had displayed in Perick's time.

Since Warren-Green was first-chair violinist of a top British orchestra before stepping onto the podium, it probably was natural that he could get such results. But there were limits, such as Sibelius' First Symphony: Its heroic turns needed more heft than the orchestra's modest-sized string section could deliver.

Did Warren-Green have less of a grip on the winds? The season brought a scattering of misfires that suggested that. Then again, the winds were less assured under Perick, too, even if the slips were less obvious.

The winds' progress will be something to listen for this season - starting this week with "Pictures at an Exhibition." Its playful sections will give them a workout.

And the orchestra will face a fresh challenge in the exuberant counterpoint of J.S. Bach. Perick steered away from Bach's music, but Warren-Green has programmed a Brandenburg Concerto and an orchestral suite. In the midst of the big-scale music by other composers, Warren-Green said last week, playing intricate Bach is "absolutely imperative for the technique and style of the orchestra."

Mr. Outreach

Warren-Green knew all about the financial challenges when he accepted the job. He acknowledges there are things he wants but can't soon have - from more players in the string section to more schools in the instrumental-music program the orchestra leads at Winterfield Elementary.

Nevertheless, when he plans what to do with his orchestra, "I don't feel in a ... straitjacket at all," Warren-Green said. He would be putting together programs much like these no matter what, he said. As for the rest: "That'll come."

To help it come, he's making himself Mr. Outreach - whether he's chatting from the podium or luring in people he meets in his new town.

"I keep inviting people to come as my guest," he said. "It's all down to personal contact, really, which is why I came."

One thing that has surprised him, Warren-Green said, is the number of people he meets who may go to Summer Pops concerts but nothing else. He hopes to lure them into the concert hall with the KnightSounds series, which aims for a casual atmosphere alongside quality music. He sees the series' near-sellout last season as a promising sign.

And when he looks to the coming season, he zeroes in on the Tchaikovsky festival in March, which will unite the orchestra with Opera Carolina, N.C. Dance Theatre and others.

"I love the idea of festivals that involve everybody across the community, including schools and young people. That's the atmosphere for me."