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Charlotte Symphony opens season with robustness, delicacy

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra opened its season Friday, canvassing the 19th century from the beginnings of Romanticism – Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony – to one of its last vigorous gasps, Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” In between came Dvorak’s lone cello concerto, running the emotional gamut from tumult to tranquility.

The symphony finished with a surplus for fiscal year 2013-14, something it hadn’t done in 12 seasons. So the program felt like a message to its core audience: You’re safe with us. Experimentation will come later – in fact, in the next concert, when Wu Man plays Zhao Jiping’s Concerto for Pipa. Friday was a “Welcome back” for subscribers who want to hear cornerstones of the repertoire.

Those can still be played with revolutionary fervor, and the orchestra sounded reinvigorated: The brass snarled in “Finlandia” (originally a protest against Russian censorship), horns whooped lustily in the third movement of the Eroica, the strings sounded beefier than we have a right to expect from a section that’s still small by international standards.

The orchestra struck an unusual balance with soloist Gary Hoffman in Dvorak’s concerto. The musicians were the composer’s public face, proud and assertive in vivid climaxes; Hoffman was Dvorak’s private face, meditative and slightly sad. (The slow movement was a songful tribute to Dvorak’s sister-in-law, who died while he was writing it.) Hoffman went so far inside that movement, scaling down his sound, that he seemed to snap out of a reverie when the uptempo finale began.

The Eroica began as if it fit the conception of the composer we’ve come to expect from music director Christopher Warren-Green: A first movement that was fleet rather than grand, a funeral march that had dignity but didn’t aim for the heaviest sadness.

Yet the conductor who took the podium Friday is not the one who came in 2010. The third movement surged forward jauntily, without haste. Where the fourth might have sprinted toward its end, he broadened the tempo for a balmy interlude, teasing out the “Prometheus” theme Beethoven used in many compositions. While the orchestra continues to grow musically, so does its boss.

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