Kwamé Ryan Leads Orchestra from Fearful Whispers to Heaven-Storming Prayers

By Lawrence Toppman

The Decca Recording Company used to boast about ”ffrr” discs: full frequency range recordings, which captured everything from barely audible pianissimos to ground-shaking fortes. That’s what guest conductor Kwamé Ryan gave us Saturday, taking the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) from fearful whispers to heaven-storming prayers in Verdi’s Requiem.

The Trinidad native is the last auditioner for the job of music director, which should be filled by early 2024. Ryan, who memorably conducted Copland here in January, gave you got a sense at Belk Theater of what he might coax out of the CSO and Charlotte Master Chorale (prepared, as always, by Kenney Potter). Ryan’s one of only three conductors to appear twice during the audition process, and I’d bet a gold-tipped baton that he, Jessica Cottis and Paolo Bartolameolli (the other two) are the final three candidates under consideration.

In some ways, Ryan reminded me of outgoing music director Christopher Warren-Green. He’s cheerfully animated on the podium, attentive to details, unlikely to linger in places where other conductors might do so – the piece came in at a trim 80 minutes – yet unafraid to use silences to make emotional points. He can hold the orchestra in check carefully or let it roar, and it made a monumental sound Saturday.

Brahms offers comfort for the living in his requiem; Mozart supplies a sense of celestial harmony; Faure paints an almost dreamlike picture of eternal rest; Beethoven depicts spiritual bliss in his Missa Solemnis. Verdi mostly wants to scare the pants off us crawling sinners.

He sets the text “Merciful Lord, grant us peace” to a titanic blast of sound. “Who am I?” ask the quartet of soloists. “A wretch to be beaten. Who will stand faith for me, when even the just are unsafe?” The singers seem to skip deftly among lightning bolts and lakes of fire while begging for grace.

Except for revisions of older works, Verdi had only two operas left in him when he finished this requiem at 60 in 1874. We hear things that turned up in different ways in those revolutionary masterpieces, such as the opening storm sequence in “Otello” and the canonic singing that caps “Falstaff.”

While the requiem’s solos don’t sound like arias, it’s operatic in its proportions and requires voices suited to the stage. The quiet moments don’t seem intimate, so much as calms before terrific storms, and the tension never lets up after the subdued opening sequence.

The Charlotte Master Chorale relished both extremes of sound, and each soloist found a moment to make an effect. Mezzo Leann Sandel-Pantaleo used her lower notes to strike extra fear into us. Tenor Cooper Nolan treated the “Ingemisco” section (“I groan, my face red with guilt”) not as a man delivering a beautiful showpiece but as a reflective penitent. Bass Robert Pomakov’s darkly attractive sound seemed to come from a man astride his own grave.

I have the awkward task of reserving highest praise for soprano Melinda Whittington: “awkward” because we have sung together in Opera Carolina, “highest” because she deserves no less for the concluding “Libera Me.” Verdi had written a version of this movement five years earlier to end an abortive requiem for Rossini, which he patched together with 12 other composers. (It went unperformed until 1988.) His improvements strengthened and extended it.

The revised version requires the soprano to ride the whirlwind of orchestral sound at its peaks, drop into a hush that grips the audience in other places, and placate an angry God as if she were the title character pleading with the abusive Scarpia in “Tosca.” Whittington conveyed all this with her face and voice, ending in an exhausted final plea to be spared eternal death.

Pictured: Kwamé Ryan by Zycopolis Productions.

From Faust to Triumph: A Night of Orchestral Wonders

By Lawrence Toppman

Until last weekend, I had two opinions about Christopher James Lees. I formed the first from our interviews long ago; there he was funny, articulate, relaxed and insightful about music. I formed the second from watching him on the podium; there he seemed cautious, anxious to get things right without unbuttoning himself enough to help musicians maximize their potential.

Lees, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) resident conductor, changed my mind Saturday night at Knight Theater. He drew forth all the spooky drama of Antonin Dvorak’s “The Noon Witch” and all the drama, humor, struggle and triumph in William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, often called the Afro-American Symphony. I haven’t heard him conduct in a while, and I had no idea the musicians would play for him with such vitality and keenness.

The program started – for me, at least – with music no conductor could enliven much. I commend the CSO for reviving interest in obscure female composers. (May I suggest Louise Farrenc, who wrote three fine Romantic-era symphonies?) But on the showing of this “Faust” overture, Emilie Mayer has small claim to our attention. The zestful Mendelssohn-like surges and Schumann-esque horns seemed to have nothing to do with the Faust legend, and the piece stayed in memory for exactly the time it took to play it.

Then came Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, actually the first of two he wrote. Has a first-rank composer ever orchestrated a concerto more banally? Granted, he wrote it at 19, but its repetitiveness and empty gestures through the 20-minute opening movement made me nod over my notebook time and again.

I came to for the beautiful larghetto, the solo part of which could have been one of Chopin’s sublime nocturnes, then found my attention wandering during the blandly showy final rondo. Pianist Orli Shaham played with the right tenderness, sparkle and virtuosity and made me want to hear her in something substantial.

After intermission, Lees prepared us for the wide range of emotions to come. He spoke entertainingly about “The Noon Witch” and Still’s symphony, and we later heard the nuances he’d took us to look for.

Dvorak, an amiable and universally beloved man, wrote symphonic poems about abductions, murder, suicide, the decapitation of a child, etc. “Noon Witch” follows that pattern: An exasperated mother threatens her misbehaving youngster with a visit from the Noon Witch, who does indeed appear to snatch the boy; the mother, frantically trying to protect him, accidentally smothers him herself.

The orchestra rightly played this like horror movie music written in 1896, before feature films existed. The violins created an ominous haze through which Allan Rosenfeld’s bass clarinet slithered, embodying the witch. The all-out climaxes, followed by a mournful resolution, worked as Dvorak meant they should.

Still’s symphony, which premiered in 1930, consists of four movements: longing, sorrow, humor and aspiration. They encapsulate the life of an extraordinary man who had already worked with W.C. Handy’s band, recorded with Fletcher Henderson’s Dance Orchestra, played in the pit for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Broadway musical “Shuffle Along” and arranged “Yamekraw,” a classical rhapsody composed by Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson.

Small wonder then, that it opens with a bluesy riff for trumpet, played in sinuous style by Alex Wilborn. Symphony musicians often have difficulties capturing the feel of other kinds of music, even if they can play the notes. Not here. The jazzy riffs, traditional classical gestures, Juba dances (which first appeared in this country in Charleston) and other elements came together smoothly and vivaciously, in a performance that must have won Still new fans.

Pictured: Conductor Christopher James Lees/ courtesy Charlotte Symphony.

Musical Metamorphosis: Melissa White Shines at the Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

If I say I spent Friday night watching a beautiful violinist shed her garments, the words “Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO)” will not leap to your lips. But Melissa White did just that – chastely, I hasten to add – while playing the “Butterfly Lovers” concerto with spirit and dignity. Her work, which was as close to performance art as I’ve seen at a CSO concert, came at the midpoint of an evening that succeeded in three very different ways.

Last things first. I associate guest conductor Hugh Wolff with smaller-scale works, due to fine recordings with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. But his performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, dramatic from the opening hammer-blows to the end 50 minutes later, left me wrung out with pleasure.

His fleet yet forceful and dramatic approach reminded us why the piece had such power to shock audiences in 1805, when it was the longest symphony ever by a major composer. Wollf, who turns 70 this month, had the energy of a man half his age and made every bar count. Even the finale, adapted from one of Beethoven’s ballet tunes, had extra intensity.

Wolff showed his range after conducting the opening piece, Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja,” with gentle precision. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned this short work, subtitled “Anthem of Unity for Orchestra,” three seasons ago, when Coleman became the first living female African-American composer on a program there. (The CSO had already broken that barrier.)

“Umoja” means “unity” in Swahili, and the piece is a musical “e pluribus unum:” From many sources, one style emerges. We might think of Copland’s prairie consciousness, Rimsky-Korsakov’s pseudo-Orientalism, the urban clamor of Bernstein. Yet it all fits together appealingly, and Coleman’s attractive melodies (especially in her writing for strings) make this a rarity: A modern piece that appeals equally to the mind and ear.

In between came the concerto, composed in 1959 by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang. At first, it sounds like the kind of music you might idly take in while rolling moo shu pancakes at a Chinese restaurant or watching figure skaters at the Olympics. (It has been used in both places.)

Sentimental as it is, alternating themes of almost saccharine sweetness with bombastic orchestral climaxes, it’s an irresistible earworm. White’s gracious, flexible and empathetic playing came as close as anything could to bringing this concerto near the top rank, and Wolff and the CSO stayed right with her.

She provided added interest by coming out in a multi-layered, multi-colored dress, which she stripped down and altered at intervals in her playing. She cast away a yellow outer shell, pinned up an orange flap, dropped another layer to the stage, shifted a swatch of tan to her hip and finally stuck her bow hand through one of those loops 19th-century ladies employed to carry heavy skirts. When she swung her arm wide, she created a butterfly wing, complete with eye-like spots. This might have seemed a gimmick, but the image of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis worked for this music.

Two parting thoughts: First, principal oboist Hollis Ulaky retired from the CSO this weekend after nearly half a century, dating back to the days when music director Leo Driehuys led an orchestra of professionals and volunteers. (It went fully professional during his tenure,) You could’ve appreciated Ulaky’s value by listening her plaintive solo in the funeral march of the “Eroica.”

Second, people talk rightly these days about multiculturalism in classical music. An African-American violinist and the French-born son of a white American diplomat combining on a Chinese composition seems to me like multiculturalism at its best.

Pictured: Melissa White by Dario Acosta.

Fleming Defies Time, Genre Boundaries in Charlotte Symphony Gala

By Lawrence Toppman

I’ve been lucky enough to hear many great singers in their 60s. Frank Sinatra captivated a casino crowd for two full hours. Leontyne Price bewitched an audience with baroque arias and spirituals on her farewell tour. Renata Scotto struggled to sing the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” but won us over with her warmth and dramatic authority. Jerome Hines’ bass had become so dark that you scarcely noticed his hammy acting.

But each of them had lost a step, as sportswriters like to say. So when conductor laureate Christopher Warren-Green introduced 64-year-old Renée Fleming Wednesday night as “One of the greatest singers of all time,” I raised an eyebrow at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra gala. What did “greatness” mean in the last decade of a performing career?

In this case, it meant unbroken communication with the audience, as she ranged from the quiet ecstasies of Strauss’ Four Last Songs to the proud yet self-teasing sentiments of Andrew Lippa’s “The Diva” to the inspirational power of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” (Anyone mounting a revival of “The Sound of Music” should immediately hire her for the Mother Superior.)

I’ve heard the wonderful Eileen Farrell go from Wagnerian outbursts to well-judged renditions of the Great American Songbook. A few classical singers — Ezio Pinza, Robert Merrill, Helen Traubel – left a stamp on Broadway or film musicals after quitting opera. But I have never heard so flexible a voice come out of the classical field and cross boundaries so easily.

Her greatness lies in this adaptability. Like Mikhail Baryshnikov, the most versatile dancer I’ve seen, everything she does seems natural, exactly the right expression for that moment and style. She sings Broadway tunes like a Broadway singer, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” like a pop singer, “The Diva” like a cabaret artist, Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” with the intensity suited to a classical aria about devotion to music.

Her voice may no longer have quite the creamy perfection I first heard at Spoleto Festival USA, where she sang Countess Almaviva in “Le Nozze de Figaro” in 1989. She doesn’t effortlessly soar to the heights of Strauss’ “Beim Schlafengehen,” where she echoes the ascending line of a celestial violin. She compensates with a directness and depth of expression that never fail her, whether jaunting through a funny aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “La Boheme” or sustaining a hushed “pieta” at the end of Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.”

She had an obvious rapport with Warren-Green, who conducted three instrumental overtures to give her breathers and time to change from a champagne-colored, floor-length dress to a fiery, copper-colored number.

His “Carousel Waltz” seemed perfunctory, lacking the full degree of Richard Rodgers’ swoony, dark-hued giddiness. The overture to Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino,” on the other hand, throbbed with the emotions of that turbulent opera, and the overture to Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” had bounce and vigor without seeming hurried. (Did you know the CSO’s former music director recorded an entire album of Strauss family waltzes 20 years ago? I like it.)

Warren-Green was mostly there to support Fleming sensitively and even swingingly, when rock instruments kicked in for Lippa’s “Diva.” That number made her seem both glamorous and approachable, a combination no other opera singer has pulled off so well. Many female singers have had a glossy elegance, from Maria Callas to Angela Gheorghiu, and a handful – Farrell, Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne – have been people who’d joke with you over a beer. Fleming has both elements, movie-star looks and down-to-Earth personality.

She referred to herself jokingly in Lippa’s number as a soprano “of indeterminate age.” Earlier, she had uttered the fateful words of Adriana Lecouvreur, the only character in opera history to be murdered by poisoned violets: “My voice is but a breath, which tomorrow will die.” As long as Fleming grips audiences the way she did Wednesday, that day will not come.

Pictured: Renée Fleming by Andrew Eccles/Decca

Symphony Unfurls Rachmaninov in His Long, Emotional Glory

By Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) officials have been close-mouthed about which guest conductors this season have applied for the job of music director. I’d guess Lan Shui isn’t one of them, for three reasons.

First, he retired from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2019 after 22 seasons as music director; he may not want a permanent position where he’s again expected to lift an orchestra to the next artistic level. Second, he’d be in his late 60s when he started. Conductors have the lifespan of Galapagos tortoises, but the CSO may want to go with someone younger for the long run. Third, he told WDAV last week how much he enjoys his current life of guest conducting.

So his concerts this weekend with the CSO may represent our only chance to hear him. He led a meaty piece he recorded 15 years ago with the Singapore Symphony: Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, which he played with unfailing passion across a span of a little more than an hour. (Rachmaninov sanctioned cuts, and Eugene Ormandy – his friend and champion with the Philadelphia Orchestra – made about eight minutes’ worth. I’m with Ormandy.)

Lan recorded all of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works with his Singapore crew and obviously loves this composer. His introductory remarks set the symphony up as a voyage from emotional despondence and self-doubt to triumph, and that’s what he gave us.

He delivered the piece with a combination of welcome vigor and excessive languor. He drove the orchestra briskly through fast passages, building to tremendous climaxes. Elsewhere, he slowed way down, which let us hear orchestral voices clearly but drained passages of momentum. If the third movement adagio unfurled at a well-played crawl, the more extroverted passages never lacked luster.

He’d already established that format in Samuel Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal” at the start of the program. Its bustling opening, which represents the buzzing of gossips in Richard Sheridan’s play, bristled with energy, but the romantic theme in the middle of the piece lost its nimbleness at a heavy-footed pace.

Lan proved a sympathetic supporter to pianist Mari Kodama in Felix Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, a work as shiny, superficially attractive and hollow as a Christmas ornament. Mendelssohn finished eight concertos: The Second Violin Concerto – his last concerto, the one we all know — deserves its status as a masterpiece, but the rest can be lumped in with other glittering showcases turned out by 19th-century composers.

That’s no reflection on Kodama. She gave us bravura runs in the opening movement, attempted futilely to wring poetry from the central andante and thundered through the strutting, percussive finale. I own recordings by Murray Perahia and Rudolf Serkin, two of the greatest pianists of the last century, and they don’t get much more out of it.

Kodama’s performance mainly made me want to hear what she’d do with a meaningful work. Her recorded legacy includes all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos; perhaps we’ll be lucky enough another time to get one of those.

Pictured: Lan Shui, condutor; by Chris Christodoulou/BBC Proms London.

Has Jessica Cottis Pulled Ahead in CSO’s Music Director Race?

By Lawrence Toppman

“I wonder if I can outdo Beethoven at the top of his game,” said no sensible composer ever during the last 220 years. But I’d bet Felix Mendelssohn had that fleeting thought as he labored over his Second Symphony, which – depending on tempos taken by the conductor – was either the longest or second longest symphony in the world when he finished it in 1840.

The other contender, Beethoven’s Ninth, had premiered 16 years earlier, when Mendelssohn was a teenager. Both consist of orchestral sections about as long as the symphonies the two had previously written, followed by a choral finale with soloists.

But where Beethoven was content with a quarter-hour of singing, Mendelssohn tips the scales in favor of the voices with a 40-minute vocal section. That’s why he titled it “Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible for Soloists, Choir and Orchestra,” though his publishers dubbed it either “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”) or Symphony No. 2. (He wrote it after the one published as Symphony No. 4, but let’s not get into that.)

Conductor Jessica Cottis, three soloists, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and Charlotte Master Chorale successfully brought off this odd hybrid Friday at Belk Theater. Though the piece was initially set to stand alone, as Beethoven’s Ninth does when the CSO plays it, Antonín Dvořák’s tone poem “The Golden Spinning Wheel” preceded it — an interesting balance for the evening, juxtaposing music about amputations, murder and witchcraft with praises to God.

Cottis made her second appearance in two seasons, after conducting four pieces from the last 100 years in January 2022. This weekend’s concerts must have given her a leg up on the music director’s job: She got a chance to show what she could do with 19th-century music, still a huge part of the CSO’s repertoire, and she led a large choral work. The orchestra generally programs two each year, “Messiah” and one other; we’ll hear Verdi’s Requiem next season.

She also charmed the audience with her sanitized account of the tone poem, spoken in an accent that recalled her native Australia. You’ll find a more explicit version here, but her milder one suited the music: Dvořák had written all his symphonies, concertos and great chamber works when he created five tone poems in 1896-97, and his genial personality didn’t suit the darker material. (He had one masterpiece left in him, the opera “Rusalka” in 1900.)

They’re all pleasantly unremarkable and literal: You get spooky “walking through the woods” music for suspense, horn fanfares for hunters and whirling winds for the spinning wheel. Cottis paced it intelligently over a long 27 minutes.

After intermission came the Mendelssohn. She had a firm grasp on the subtleties of the material, found ways to freshen repetitive sections, matched the orchestra well with the  singers and seemed at ease conducting the chorale, which Kenney Potter had prepared thoroughly as usual.

Soprano Patricia Westley brought shimmering high notes to her utterances of joy and blended sweetly with Deanna Breiwick, whose attractive soprano scarcely got an airing. (She shared one duet with Westley and had no solos. Did Mendelssohn owe some soprano a small favor?)

Tenor Joseph Tancredi, a 25-year-old graduate student at Curtis Institute of Music, provided the emotional heart of the drama when he asked God’s Watchman (in the Book of Isaiah) when the darkness encompassing him would pass. He sang with fervor, lustrous sound and an intelligence belying his years, varying repeated phrases and communicating clearly in even the quietest passages. Memories of Fritz Wunderlich, my favorite lyric tenor, didn’t seem out of place.

Pictured: Jessica Cottis by Timothy Jeffes/Sydney Symphony.

Why The New Charlotte Symphony Season Matters Next Year More Than Ever

By Lawrence Toppman

British auto engineer Alec Issigonis famously described a camel as “a horse designed by a committee.” Yet in the absence of a music director, a committee from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) designed a season as rare locally as a unicorn.

I’ve always met CSO season announcements with the same response: “This concert, very cool. This one…maybe, if I’m not busy. This I can easily skip.” Now, for the first time in 43 years, I see a Classical Series where every concert seems essential. Even the Pops and Family series contain don’t-miss stuff. The CSO just set the innovation bar higher for every local arts organization.

You’ll find the entire lineup here. Let me explain briefly why I’m buzzed.

First, it’s packed with unusual things. Except for Verdi’s Requiem and Handel’s “Messiah,” which both require a full evening, and one program featuring Wieniawski and Kodály, each concert in the classical series includes a local premiere. Instead of one brief new piece and two familiar ones, the ratio is often reversed.

Second, women and composers of color get stronger representation, not just in eight-minute curtain-raisers but in works that anchor programs. I’ve beefed for years about the absence of William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony,” the first symphony by a Black composer performed by a major orchestra. Here it comes.

Third, these concerts have been thoughtfully coordinated. For example, the one conducted by former music director Christopher Warren-Green includes three British pieces about the sea, culminating in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony to texts by Walt Whitman.

Traditionalists will get Beethoven’s “Eroica,” Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris,” Holst’s “The Planets.” But consider these less common highlights:

Oct. 6 – 8: Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” and the “Butterfly Lovers Concerto,” a lilting piece by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. Violinist Melissa White, founding member of the Harlem Quartet, will solo.

Oct. 20 – 22: Not only Still’s symphony but Emilie Mayer’s obscure “Faust” overture and Dvořák’s spooky tone poem “The Noonday Witch.” (Note that the symphony has restored Sunday matinees for some programs.)

Jan. 19 – 20: Jennifer Koh plays Missy Mazzoli’s violin concerto “Procession.” (It’s a season for hip violinists.) Copland’s “Billy the Kid” suite is the one familiar work alongside Samuel Barber’s Second Essay and Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” suite, co-commissioned by the CSO.

Feb. 2 – 3: The suite from Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” and John Adams’ symphony, “Doctor Atomic.”

Feb. 16 – 18: Zoltán Kodály’s stirring “Dances of Galanta” and Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No.2, a good choice for concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu.

March 1 – 2: Pianist Michelle Cann plays a work she has championed, Florence Price’s Concerto in One Movement. It’s a smart pairing for “Rhapsody in Blue,” written 10 years earlier in 1924.

March 22 – 23: Not only Julia Perry’s “A Short Piece for Orchestra” but the obscure trumpet concerto by Oskar Böhme, played by CSO principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn.

April 5 – 6: Wang Jie’s Symphonic Overture “America, the Beautiful.” Wang came to Charlotte last fall when her husband, “Performance Today” emcee Fred Child, hosted WDAV’s broadcast of the CSO’s season-opening concert. She must have impressed folks at the symphony.

April 26 – 27: Vaughan Williams’s “Sea Symphony,” Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera “Peter Grimes” and Welsh composer Grace Williams’ “Sea Sketches.”

May 17 – 18: Another well-curated program. “The Planets” gets matched with Caroline Shaw’s “The Observatory” and Jeremy Lamb’s “A Ride on ‘Oumuamua,” inspired by the first known interstellar object to travel our solar system.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Sept. 20 gala with Renée Fleming, one of the most popular operatic sopranos of the last 35 years, or the Feb. 9 – 10 Pops concerts with unclassifiable Regina Carter. She’ll play jazz-tinged shows that include David Schiff’s concerto “Four Sisters,” which pays homage to Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.

If I ever got up on Saturday mornings before 11, I’d be going to two Family Series concerts. The one on Feb. 10 features music by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Europe’s’ first important Black composer; he’s having a moment, as the biopic “Chevalier” comes out in a few weeks. The one on April 13 pairs Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” with “Thurber’s Dogs,” a suite celebrating James Thurber’s drawings by Peter Schickele. (Yes, the P.D.Q. Bach guy.)

If you’re wondering whom to applaud for this fresh programming, thank the committee: president and CEO David Fisk, director of artistic planning Carrie Graham, resident conductor Christopher James Lees (who conducts the Family Series), principal flutist Victor Wang (chair of the musicians’ Artistic Advisory Committee), cellist Sarah Markle, clarinetist Allan Rosenfeld, timpanist Jacob Lipham and principal trumpet Alex Wilborn.

Note that no Classical Series concert has a conductor listed on the website, except the one with Warren-Green. Officially, the symphony expects to name a new music director by the end of 2023. Unofficially, I hear the choice will be made by September, which means we’ll have seen all the candidates by the time the current season ends in May.

Whoever the CSO picks will undoubtedly share the philosophy that motivated the ground-breaking choices for 2023-24. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Pictured: Melissa White by Dario Accosta.

A Happy Union of Erik and Igor and Ludwig and Paolo

By Lawrence Toppman

Officially, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert last weekend paid homage to the exhibit of Picasso landscapes next door at the Mint Museum. Picasso designed sets and costumes for Erik Satie’s “Parade” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” when they appeared in Paris a century ago as ballets, and those comprised the first half of the CSO’s program.

Unofficially, the concert gave guest conductor Paolo Bortolameolli a second chance to impress musicians and audience during the long search for a permanent music director. I warmed to his conducting for the second time, but in a different way.

He anchored the program in February 2022 with John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, which seethes with angst and bitterness while commemorating friends who died from AIDS. There Bortolameolli took us down to despairing depths for 45 minutes before the meditative finale.

He came back last weekend more thickly bearded, more chatty and with a grin that lasted through all three compositions. As he conducted the merry finale to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, the last he wrote before upending the symphonic world with the Eroica, Bortolameolli seemed to be giving and getting joy.

Even the composers might agree the first two works on the program were lightweight. Satie was in his most puckish mood when he created this fluff inspired by Parisian music halls and American silent films: He included sections for tap shoes rapped on a desktop, police and air raid sirens, balloons to be popped dramatically, water sloshed in a jug, even hanging bottles played with tiny mallets. The music doesn’t amount to much; it’s bland for a ballet intended to startle the bourgeoisie, but the CSO jogged through it pleasantly.

Without the three singers who enliven the full-length “Pulcinella,” the eight-movement suite seems repetitive. Stravinsky based this work on Baroque themes – once thought to be by Pergolesi, now known to be the work of four or five lesser composers – and it needs the jaunty outlook Bortolameolli and the musicians provided to avoid becoming a drawn-out joke.

Beethoven’s symphony justified the ticket price. He finished it in 1802, around the time he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers. This letter explained that he felt suicidal over his near-deafness, and only art had kept him alive. He determined to embark on what he called the New Path, and the world-changing Eroica emerged the next year.

His symphonic voice in 1802 held echoes of Mozart and Haydn; the latter was still alive and would surely have appreciated the elegance of the second movement of the Symphony No. 2. The piece mingles drama, old-fashioned sweetness and raucous humor; more than any work of Beethoven I know, it represents the musical world he’d soon leave behind while offering glimmers of the future.

The players relished this meat-and-potatoes entrée after two bowls of musical meringue. By the time they reached the finale, violins fiddling furiously and woodwinds making rude noises one critic related to Beethoven’s chronic gastric distress, they seemed to be enjoying the music as much as Bortolameolli and the rest of us.

Pictured: Paolo Bortolameolli by Jorge Brantmayer; cropped with modified background.