With Colorado Springs Philharmonic music director Josep Caball?Domenech in Europe, the organization found the perfect opening night replacement: Christopher Wilkins.
Wilkins' ended his historic run as the then Colorado Springs Symphony's music director and advisor in 1996. It's safe to say that no one before or since him has wielded such community-wide popularity.
Things have obviously changed considerably in the 18 years since he last opened an orchestral season here. The philharmonic is sounding better than ever. Wilkins' gestures and podium presence project an economy of expression that encourages superior performances. From the first downbeat until the dramatic final cadence, the audience in the packed Pikes Peak Center experienced unrelenting intensity and seductive sounds.
The concert's opener, Kevin Puts' "River's Rush," was an engaging tone poem that showed its composer to be a supreme colorist. Yes, there were hints of Sibelius, Hindemith, Shostakovich and Wagner, but the result displayed textures rarely heard in the concert hall.
Then, a throwback. Wilkins greeted the audience and shared his thoughts about Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid." I personally applaud these kinds of presentations and no one is better at it than Wilkins, who now leads the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and Akron Symphony and Orlando Philharmonic.
The audience was then treated to magnificent storytelling through Copland's inspired score. Even a few slips of focus couldn't deter the magic. The entire wind section was colorful and characterful; percussion incisive; strings dreamy. David Zuercher's trumpet solo perfectly captured the loneliness and beauty of the Old West.
Immediately evident was that Wilkins was not interested in just ripping through Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with unbridled drama. Rather, he wanted to preserve the balance and architecture the composer had so carefully intended.
Wilkins persuasively kept a lid on what now is a high horsepower vehicle - the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. This allowed details rarely exposed to be easily perceived. Beautiful solos by bassoonist Alex Vieira and oboist Guy Dutra-Silveira added to the aura.
Restraint was still at play as the haunting Scherzo slipped in. The most stunning part of the performance? The precious pizzicati strings at the end of this third movement.
The conductor showed some reminders of the showman that we remember - all the while being faithful to the task at hand.
All led to a rousing conclusion bringing the audience to its feet and confirming that even after 205 years, Beethoven's "Fifth" is still the bomb.