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The Santa Rosa Symphony on Saturday night showcased inspired players, a sparkling piano soloist and a sensitive, empathetic conductor — Michael Christie, the fifth and final music director candidate to audition to succeed Bruno Ferrandis — but the true stars of the concert at the Green Music Center were the bustling cities and wide open prairies of America itself.

Opening with Leonard Bernstein’s tense and lyrical “On the Waterfront” Symphonic Suite and culminating with Dvorak’s bittersweet Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” the Americana theme was writ large by Christie, who last led the symphony here in January 2015, also in an American program of works by composers Aaron Copland and Mark O’Connor.

Conducting with restraint and precision, Christie captured the American spirit — its determination, resourcefulness and optimism — with a steady rhythmic pulse. There were not a lot of extraneous gestures and scant facial expressions, but his body language communicated the feeling and the pulse (he often suggested the subdivided beats within a beat) loud and clear. And while his dynamics and tempos provided exciting contrasts, the music always sounded like it was speaking for itself, never reaching for the easy or overly dramatic.

One audience member commented that for the first time this season, he found his eyes riveted on the musicians rather than the conductor, perhaps pointing to a penchant for a democratic approach. Christie also seems to have a knack for making familiar works sound fresh by giving them new context.

There is perhaps no symphony more familiar than Dvorak’s No. 9, inspired by the “wide open spaces” of America as well as Dvorak’s intense nostalgic for his Czech homeland.

Under Christie, the beloved work had a relaxed, open feeling, evoking the waves of grain, the majestic mountains and the stolid strength of the American continent. From the start, the plodding tempo and hushed dynamics allowed the music to breathe. The string and woodwind sections seemed to be feeling rather than just playing the music and could take their time to polish their tone, shape their phrases and wring all the tender emotion out of the melodies. And, of course, there was a solid contingent of powerful brass to fire up the excitement at the climactic moments.

In the beloved second movement, it took a few seconds for the English horn to settle into the relaxed tempo. But once he did, there were few dry eyes in the house. This melody, inspired by a song written by a student of Dvorak’s (“Goin’ Home”), has an intensely spiritual quality that paired well with the Shaker simplicity of the hall.

The energy ratcheted up in the third movement, a whirling Czech dance, and continued through the stirring fourth movement, which Christie led with a bit more expression and passion but a steady hand on the baton.

Before the curtain-opener by Bernstein, the 43-year-old conductor introduced himself and the American framework of the program briefly, then let the solo French horn set the bittersweet tone of the dark, disconcerting “On the Waterfront.” This searing solo dissolved as the timpani blasted off to dramatize the violent waterfront of the docks of post-war Hoboken, New Jersey.

The percussion cut-offs were crisp, and the saxophone solo was at turns sexy, gritty and bold during this scrappy opening, which gave way to tender lyricism in the flute and strings echoing the love story of Bernstein’s better-known “West Side Story.”

Fans of Bernstein and Elia Kazan’s 1954 film starring Marlon Brando could not help but enjoy this jazzy, Gershwin-esque work of extremes, which captures both the plangent urgency and lyrical sweetness of the American sound.

In the showcase spot before intermission, young, Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedovora plunged into Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with nerves of steel, hardly breaking a sweat as she galloped up and down the keyboard through the ubiquitous arpeggios and chords.

Her playing was sinuous and silky, with each note and phrase connected and moving in a certain direction. Led by Christie, the orchestra accompaniment was tight, staying ahead of the beat at times to emphasis the sardonic passages. In the eerie, otherworldly second movement, there were lovely spaces between the notes, making the music seem more alive and drawing in listeners even more.

Christie, who has a good sense of humor in person, appears very serious onstage, and one might be tempted to say he borders on boring, or at the very least, lacks a bit of pizazz.

But he was refreshingly candid and brisk in his Q&A with the soloist during intermission, sharing the world of the touring concert pianist and guest conductor with honesty and no pretensions.

As Ferrandis pulls down the curtain on his tenure here during the last two concerts of the season, the French conductor is opening a door for the orchestra and its fans to step through and create a new vision of their future.

The five candidates given the chance to fill his shoes come from a wide range of conducting styles, ages, countries and personality types. Do we want youthful energy or time-tested experience? A strict, musical taskmaster or an audience charmer? A restrained introvert or a sweaty, passionate extrovert?

Stay tuned. We’ll all know the answer next month, when the symphony board announces its decision based on input from audience, musicians and staff. It truly will be a new world then.

The Santa Rosa Symphony will repeat this program at 8 p.m. tonight at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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