A Voyage Into Deep Space with the Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

My favorite moments of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) last concert of the 2023-24 Classical Series were the final 30 seconds.

The offstage women’s voices in the “Neptune” section of “The Planets” had died away Saturday, but guest conductor William Eddins stood statue-still on the Belk Theater podium. And stood. And stood some more. Nobody in Belk Theater dropped a beer cup or snapped a photo or even spoke. Finally, when he felt we’d digested the cosmic trip we’d just taken, he turned around. Applause rained down.

“The Planets” capped an evening begun by two composers with North Carolina ties, following Jeremy Lamb’s “A Ride on ‘Oumuamua” and Caroline Shaw’s “Observatory.” Holst’s suite was the crowd-pleaser, designed to woo even spectators who had first heard the symphony at last weekend’s MERGE concert and ventured into the mainstream. (I’m told some did.) Lamb’s 12-minute piece was the heart-warmer, Shaw’s 20-minute view of deep space the ear-opener.

You felt, hearing all three, that you’d been somewhere new. Eddins even re-thought tempos for “The Planets.” He let “Mars” build gracefully to its monumental force and gave “Venus” flowing beauty, rather than languid allure. “Jupiter,” which Holst subtitled “The Bringer of Jollity,” started at a ponderous Falstaffian waddle but soon made merry with more vigor.

The sentimental favorite of the evening and a satisfying aural trip came from Lamb, who sits in the cello section of the CSO. ‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word roughly meaning “scout,” became the first interstellar object detected passing through our solar system.

Its 2017 visit inspired Lamb to write a piece for string trio, which he expanded for full string orchestra. His thoughtful comments in the online program book – sadly, inevitably too small to read easily on any cellphone – explained how the music’s flow might reflect the sensations of someone riding this object. (Or, perhaps, of the object itself; some people feel an otherworldly entity created it.)  

The strings played attractively in unison, pulsed tremulously – messages from space? – and played contrasting rhythms in the Philip Glass manner, but more gently. Not surprisingly, the middle section held a long-breathed melody for Lamb’s instrument, played tenderly by principal cellist Jonathan Lewis. We stopped in mid-air, so to speak, as ‘Oumuamua bid farewell.

The Greenville-born Shaw’s quasi-whimsical, perhaps intentionally unclear comments in that same guide didn’t help much with “Observatory.” But I didn’t need them. After three titanic chords, she ambled amiably around the sonic universe, from a semi-march episode to solos by piano, viola and clarinet to three- and four-note themes tossed gracefully around the orchestra.

Bits of music from famous composers — a Brandenburg Concerto, Sibelius’ Second Symphony — reminded me that NASA launched the space probe “Voyager” in 1977, bearing music from around the world that extraterrestrials might someday hear (including a different Brandenburg Concerto). It’s now the counterpart to ‘Oumuamua, the human-made object farthest from Earth, so perhaps Shaw’s piece might be a quirky bookend to Lamb’s.

Holst wasn’t thinking of actual planets, or course, but of astrological significance. His Mars was the Bringer of War, his Mercury the Winged Messenger. Eddins freshened our understanding of each one, with an especially poignant Saturn – the Bringer of Old Age – as the weightiest section, almost stopping time in spots.

Eddins’ slightly swift tempos for Neptune (the Mystic) sent the voices of the Charlotte Master Chorale sailing rather than floating into space at the end. Then came the profound, prolonged silence I so often wish for at the end of a satisfying concert but so seldom get.

Charlotte Symphony’s MERGE A New, Energizing Classical Party

By Lawrence Toppman

I’m told certain parts of Mecklenburg County saw the Aurora Borealis last weekend, due to freak solar flares. But you might have found an equally compelling light show indoors at Blackbox Theater, this one accompanied by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

Or perhaps the light show accompanied the CSO. These elements were so carefully integrated that “MERGE: Symphonic x Electronic” blurred the lines between senses. The people who danced meditatively, perhaps in a trance, in the pit between the screen and the string players had the right idea.

The CSO website billed the concert this way: “Immerse yourself in a multisensory experience at the nexus of symphonic and electronic music at Blackbox Theater. Push/Pull Sound, Tenorless and the Charlotte Symphony take you on an exploration of the edges of musical possibility with live visual artistry. Pieces by Philip Glass and Steve Reich merge with ambient downtempo soundscapes to cutting-edge electronic music freed of physical limitations.”

That translated to resident conductor Christopher James Lees keeping a gentle rein on the reduced CSO, visual designer Tenorless crafting ever-shifting images projected on multiple screens, and Push/Pull laying down beats that sometimes complemented what the symphony played and sometimes changed the mood between pieces. When the classical musicians went home about 10:30, after 80 minutes of music they’re not likely to perform elsewhere, Push/Pull dropped heavier, faster and louder beats for the crowd that stayed behind.

This kind of innovation has roots in the short-lived AltSounds series, contemporary programming at Knight Theater whose highlight was a 2017 concert that intertwined Brahms’ First Symphony and Radiohead’s album “OK Computer.”

Yet the Knight remained a concert hall, whatever sounds bounced off its walls. Blackbox, which people with 40-year memories will recall as the long-defunct Tryon Mall Cinemas, is a nightclub. The ambience made quite a difference Saturday night.

Lees and Push/Pull designed a program that built in intensity and volume over time, starting with John Luther Adams’ murmurous “Dream in White on White” through a movement from Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “Rosa Parks” string quartet – a clap-along opportunity half the patrons seemed willing to take – to Wojciech Kilar’s luminous “Orawa.” You could loosely have classed these works under the banner of minimalism, a term Glass dislikes, but they varied in mood and dynamics.

Blumenthal Performing Arts had lent the venue extra projectors, and you could immerse yourself in the shifting visuals: coruscating pillars of light, Escher-like interlocking figures or geometric patterns, skyscrapers that rose and fell like pistons. A face appeared once in a while, like as not on the trunk of a tree, but most images remained abstract and even kaleidoscopic.

Looking on with pride from the back of the hall were CSO president and CEO David Fisk and new music director Kwamé Ryan. I’d been told to expect Ryan, whose appearance showed unusual commitment to his new orchestra: He’d made his debut with the New York Philharmonic the night before in Manhattan, leading a concert in its cutting-edge “Sound On” series.

They know the CSO has to keep thinking in new ways. At the turn of the millennium, orchestras asked, “How can we get non-classical fans to care about our classical series, our main raison d’etre?” The question for this generation is more pragmatic: “How do we reach the largest number of people, whether they cross over or not?” The orchestra doesn’t expect ticket-buyers for Merge to show up at this weekend’s performance of Holst’s “The Planets,” though it would be lovely if they did.

I didn’t see many familiar faces from the Belk and Knight Theaters Saturday, nor did I see half a dozen folks my age (nearly 70). What I saw were people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who stood respectfully and took in the subtleties of excerpts from Philip Glass’ string quartets. They wandered quietly around the big room, seldom speaking, and taking advantage of the fact that you could stand so close to the musicians: If you crept up behind the double-basses, you could read their scores over their shoulders.

These MERGErs may not be the future of classical music as we’ve known it. But they are a future of it, and I’m glad the CSO is going after them.

Pictured: MERGE: Symphonic x Electronic concert at Blackbox Theater in Charlotte, NC; by Genesis Photography.

Warren-Green Sails Through Deep Waters with Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) concert Saturday was designed to appeal to Anglophiles, fans of massive choral pieces, people who welcomed the return of former music director Christopher Warren-Green to the podium, advocates for obscure female composers and anyone who grew up within a short drive of an ocean. I fit into all five categories, so I blissed out.

Warren-Green chose never to address the audience for the first time I can remember. He husbanded his energy for the last piece, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ majestic but unrelenting “A Sea Symphony,” which takes an hour and requires two soloists, a full orchestra and a large chorus. (Kenney Potter did his usual first-rate job preparing the Charlotte Master Chorale.)

That propulsive performance capped an all-oceanic evening, following Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera “Peter Grimes” and Grace Williams’ “Sea Sketches: Five Pieces for String Orchestra.” All three composers on this program wrote film scores – Williams became the first British woman to score a feature in 1949, with “Blue Scar” – and it’s no insult to say that moments of each piece sounded cinematic, summoning images of waters wild or tame.

The conductor laureate went right for maximum drama in Britten, where elements of menace and melancholy seemed portents for the massive storm with which “Sea Interludes” ends. The ferocity of that tempest has almost no parallels in Britten’s orchestral work, and the CSO rocked it like a hurricane.

Williams’ quintet of sketches provided a change of view: She saw the sea from Glamorgan in Wales. As far as I know, she never left the British Isles, and I couldn’t help hearing the wistfulness of someone who longed for distant ports but wouldn’t get there. Even “Sailing Song,” whose title suggested a buoyant ditty, had a gentle restlessness. She reserved the most beautiful melody for the final sketch, “Calm Sea in Summer.” But as any sailor knows, being “becalmed” means you’re going nowhere, and the feeling was not entirely peaceful.

Vaughan Williams, who taught Grace Williams at the Royal College of Music, pulled out all the vocal stops for his first symphony. (He was also one of the examiners who awarded Britten a scholarship to the RCM, though he didn’t teach the lad.) Vaughan Williams became devoted to American poet Walt Whitman in his 30s and matched epic music to Whitman’s equally expansive texts.

The soloists’ roles reverse expectations: The baritone gets the introspective music, while the soprano has soaring phrases that ride out over the orchestra. Andrew Foster-Williams provided the more intense emotions, Georgia Jarman the grand declamations.

Yet the chorus remains the focus. Vaughan Williams begins with a tremendous vocal and orchestral crash – “Behold the sea itself!” — and ends with a whisper, as mighty waters ebb away. The chorus has to rise and fall constantly, singing with fervor at all times, and the Charlotte Master Chorale (which collectively had diction as good as the soloists’) held firm.

Vaughan Williams didn’t write many catchy tunes in “A Sea Symphony;” the one with immediate appeal sounds like an Anglican hymn. (He wrote those, too.) Like Whitman, who broke with conventions about rhyme and meter, he wanted simply to create a mood that rolled over us like a great wave. In the hands of these musicians, it did.

Pictured: Conductor Laureate Christopher Warren-Green; Courtesy Charlotte Symphony.

Ryan Delivers Tasty Meat-and-Potatoes Concert with Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

Kwamé Ryan and fans of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) both got a taste of the future last weekend at Belk Theater.

Concertgoers who may have missed his two audition concerts saw him lead his first performance as music director designate. And Ryan took on Brahms and Tchaikovsky, the kind of mainstream composers we’ll hear frequently in the 2024-25 season, now that the CSO has opted for more conservative programming. (Ryan will conduct Brahms’ Requiem in November, in one of only two appearances next season.)

Saturday’s concert began with waves of applause. Symphony president and CEO David Fisk announced that the organization was more than 80 percent of the way toward its goal of raising $50 million for its endowment. Performance Today host Fred Child informed us this concert would be played at some point on his program, heard on public radio stations nationwide (including WDAV, which was broadcasting live Saturday).

Then Ryan came on, a seemingly perennial spring in his step, to the largest ovation. He thanked the CSO for his first gig as music director in an English-speaking country – the first two were in Germany and France – and dug into Wang Jie’s symphonic overture “America the Beautiful.”

The title inevitably recalls Charles Ives’ “Variations on ‘America’,” and Wang’s ending has an Ivesian feel: The main tune marches merrily along, while dissenting sections of the orchestra make themselves heard. But Wang has ideas of her own, and her overture blends urban bustle with the rural flavor of a frantic fiddle solo. Like America itself, her piece has room for many voices. (The Shanghai-raised composer, who’s married to Child, moved to the United States as a college student in 2000 and stayed.)

Then came Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” Ryan conducted with the right delicacy, but the reason to sit through this elegant piffle was the solo playing of Sterling Elliott. He blended apt amounts of nobility and sentimental sweetness in Tchaikovsky’s major work for cello and orchestra; his louder passages were rich and full, and his soft ones drew you into the piece further than I’m usually willing to go.

He capped that strong performance with an encore unknown to me: “Truckin’ Through the South,” from Aaron Minsky’s “Ten American Cello Etudes.” Elliott played this dark-hued, almost bluesy etude with beguiling strength and soulfulness.

Ryan capped the evening with the piece that gave us the clearest idea of what to expect from him: Brahms’ First Symphony. The opening movement held yearning, mystery, assertiveness, exultation. The second was more relaxed and easeful than I’m used to, so I listened with new ears. Ditto the brisk third movement, which rolled jauntily past. His fondness for dramatic pauses and decelerated tempos bent the fourth movement slightly out of shape, as it had the second, but he summoned all the life force of the finale in a potent surge.

I had never watched the CSO from the sixth row, and I was able to see Ryan close up. He has dropped traditional maestro garb for a charcoal gray suit. He conducts with his entire body, except for firmly planted feet. He uses no baton, directing with empty hands that frequently take on the Hawaiian “hang loose” position: inner three fingers curled, thumb and pinky thrust out to the sides.

His expressive face has a Bernstein-like pliability, whether intense in serious moments or ecstatic in joyful ones. This could be hamminess in some conductors – that claim was made against Bernstein, though I think unfairly – but the music seems to surge through Ryan like an electric current discharged from his fingertips. I’m glad he’s coming.

Pictured: Kwamé Ryan courtesy of kwameryan.com.

A Musical Journey: Unearthing Oskar Böhme and Julia Perry’s Brilliance at the Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

The least interesting things about the Charlotte Symphony (CSO) concert billed as “Wagner & Strauss” were the pieces by Wagner and Strauss. The orchestra gave workmanlike performances of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde” and Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration,” occasionally rising higher than that level Friday at Knight Theater.

But in the middle of this Death Sandwich came two pieces bursting with life by Oskar Böhme and Julia Perry. CSO principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn played Böhme’s trumpet concerto vivaciously, and guest conductor JoAnn Falletta gave us her best in Perry’s too-brief “A Short Piece for Orchestra.”

Symphony management unwisely scheduled two weighty pieces by the two Richards in the same night. Those premiered just 25 years apart (1865 for Wagner, 1890 for Strauss) and have similar musical arcs: Both begin with mysterious tremblings, build slowly and repetitively to passionate climaxes, then ebb away into the uneasy peace of death for love (Wagner) and the peace that passeth all understanding (Strauss).

Falletta and the CSO handled them the same way: Weakly and without sufficient atmosphere in the beginning, focusing the energy better midway, then with belated but powerful passion in the climaxes and beyond. I wish I’d heard the Wagner as it was written – a soprano is supposed to sing the Liebestod section – but much of the feeling still came through.

The musicians and the maestro seemed happier bringing us music none of us knew. My notes for Perry’s piece compare her to Leonard Bernstein in his Oscar-nominated film score for “On the Waterfront:” a dramatic opening statement that reappears in subtle ways, a melancholic solo for flute and other woodwinds, a sharp and sudden ending.

Then I learned that Perry wrote her piece in 1952, two years before the movie. Did the two know each other from the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood? Maybe New York City, where she went to the Juilliard School? Was it coincidence that, as the revised “Study for Orchestra” in 1965, this became the first piece by an African-American woman programmed by the New York Philharmonic — and Bernstein was the music director? (William Steinberg conducted it.)

Both Perry and Böhme had hard lives. She fell into financial difficulties and died of a stroke at 55 in 1979. One of Stalin’s flunkies declared him an enemy of the Soviet state in 1938 because of his German heritage; he was tortured and executed after “confessing” imagined sins. (I refer you to the CSO’s excellent program notes.)

Böhme’s trumpet concerto came from happier times in 1899, when he’d just moved to St. Petersburg from Budapest and was playing cornet at the Mariinsky Theatre. Like Chopin, he had happy ideas about writing for his instrument but vague notions of how to orchestrate. So the backing sounds now like Weber in its leaping excitement, now like Schumann in its surging pulse, now like Elgar in odd bursts of dignified grandeur. The orchestral sections don’t always relate to the solos: Those are mostly histrionic in the first movement, tender in the second and merry in the third, but often on an intimate scale.

Wilborn embraced the difficulties with gusto. He’s not a flamboyant player, but his oral and digital dexterity served the tricky writing well. My notes during the third movement say “Reminds me of “Variations on ‘The Carnival of Venice’,” a notoriously tough piece by Jean-Baptiste Arban that preceded Böhme’s concerto by a few decades.

Sure enough, Wilborn came back to play Arban’s variations with flying fingers and tongue and the kind of showmanship this chestnut requires. The rain of applause for his encore was not for a hometown favorite but for a talented musician.

Pictured: JoAnn Falletta by Steve J. Sherman.

Pianist Cann Electrifies an Otherwise Staid Concert

By Lawrence Toppman

When I started going to concerts back in the LP era, a college friend could offer no higher praise than this afterward: “Man, I would buy a record of that!” I thought of him Saturday at Belk Theater after listening to pianist Michelle Cann with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. I would absolutely have bought a recording of her three-part performance, which she’ll never repeat exactly – and, I’m sure, wouldn’t want to.

Her renditions of Florence Price’s Concerto in One Movement and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” alternately pyrotechnic and introspective, won me over at once. She sped time up in a happy frenzy, slowed it down almost but not quite to the breaking point, twisted it sideways to accommodate a bit of bluesy note-bending. But her encore!

It began as Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, with the three monumentally solemn chords the composer himself soon wearied of playing again and again. Suddenly, the quicksilver spirit of Art Tatum seemed to take over Cann’s body. Her fingers swooped and skittered all over the keyboard, sometimes linking back to Rachmaninov and sometimes rocking us with jazzy improvisations.

Later in the concert, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins took the microphone to tell us he’d discovered her at 14 and made her a protégé. And their collaboration had a sensitivity, flexibility and joie de vivre he showed only when he accompanied her.

He opened with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and closed with Maurice Ravel’s second suite from the ballet “Daphnis and Chloe.” They bore the same stamp: perky, no-nonsense excitement achieved through rapid tempos and hard-driven climaxes.

But the relaxed charm of “Paris” came through only in the brass solos (led by trumpeter Alex Wilborn, who bent notes of his own), and the opening “Daybreak” section of “Daphnis” brought not the dawn of a lazy summer day but the nippy air of a morning in early spring. Ravel’s sensual languor didn’t emerge until the woodwinds gently reminded us this was a love story

The piano pieces conveyed a wider range of moods. Cann’s playing of Gershwin’s chestnut, which had its 100th birthday three weeks ago, echoed the dictionary definition of “rhapsody” as “an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling.” What could have gone over the top never did, either here or in the Liszt-like first section of Price’s concerto. (Despite its title, it consists of three clearly defined segments anyone else would call “movements.”)

Cann has made a specialty of this work, giving the New York and Philadelphia premieres of the rediscovered concerto and winning a 2023 Grammy award for her recording of it. The first section has a fiery but hollow grandeur, yet Price doesn’t show a strong personal voice until the contemplative middle portion. There the pianist has an easeful duet with the oboe and meditates on what could almost be a hymn tune before breaking into a rollicking finale.

Cann made that transition seamlessly, all but dancing on the piano bench before taking a justified ovation and striding through her audacious encore. She battered the keyboard so vigorously (speaking of Liszt) that a piano technician spent the entire intermission re-tuning the instrument. She must have succeeded, as “Rhapsody in Blue” sounded fine.

Pictured: Michelle Cann/Instagram

Fullana’s Fire, Harada’s Charm Light Up Knight Theater

By Lawrence Toppman

How does the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra find these whizbangs?

Almost all the youngish music director candidates of the last two years impressed me, and the trend has continued since the naming of Kwamé Ryan. The latest guest conductor, Savannah Philharmonic music director Keitaro Harada, sailed into Knight Theater one week short of his 39th birthday and lit up the podium.

Last things first. Any review of Saturday’s concert should begin with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41. For once, it earned its nickname of “Jupiter,” applied in 1788 because of musical thunderbolts.

From the muscular opening movement to the elegant yet exhilarating finale, this rendition blew away preconceptions of Mozart as an academic or unemotional composer. This was proto-Beethoven, perhaps an inspiration for the 18-year-old German who was yet to write a symphony. (Interesting to think that, had Mozart reached 72 – not unimaginable, as Haydn died at 77 – he’d have outlived Beethoven. How might they have influenced each other?)

When a baby cried out during the opening allegro vivace, Harada turned his head with a smile and gave an “I heard ya” nod without breaking stride. When the movement ended, he told the crowd, “They say it’s the Mozart Effect, right? You have to make babies listen to Mozart. Clearly, that baby didn’t like my first tempo. Maybe he or she will like this one better.” And he launched into a brisk andante that still held tenderness.

He embodied lack of pretension, from his fire engine red socks to the “more, more” gesture he made to ask the audience for applause – in that case, for violinist Francisco Fullana. The Spanish-born soloist, who announced he’d recently become an American citizen, seemed as relaxed as Harada in his flowing flowered shirt. During Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, their smiling heads bobbed toward each other, as if sharing a joke.

Like his compatriot Chopin, Henryk Wieniawski was a Pole who moved to Paris (and other places), died young and wrote dull orchestrations with strong parts for his instrument – in his case, the violin. His concertos work only if played with complete conviction, and Fullana brought that to bear. He varied his tone from sweetly caressing in the slow movement (the most memorable) to explosively vivid in the pyrotechnic sections.

Fullana deserved and got a real ovation, not the obligatory half-hearted standing O that Charlotte audiences usually provide. So he played an encore, in tribute to the Granada region where his father grew up: Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” (“Memories of the Alhambra”). He turned one of the great guitar solos into a violin piece that demonstrated his gifts but didn’t suit his instrument, as it lost the dreamy romance of the original.

The symphony musicians played well in the Mozart but really shone in the reduced forces of the opener, Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galanta.” Kodály lived in that region of Hungary (now part of Slovakia), heard Gypsy music there and later adapted Gypsy tunes he found in songbooks into this orchestral suite.

Dances flit in and out of our consciousness, seldom staying long enough to develop a full melody yet providing rich orchestral sonorities. The woodwinds rose to the occasion, even sounding like a klezmer band in spots, and the irrepressible Harada danced right along with them on the podium.

You know, we’re still going to need guest conductors after Ryan takes over. Harada’s day job puts him four hours away down the interstate, and he already seems to have a rapport with our musicians. Just sayin’….

Pictured: Keitaro Harada by Claudia Hershner.

Charlotte Symphony Gets the Blues

By Lawrence Toppman

Patrons arrived with lips turned blue by the sudden savagery of a January wind. Soloist Jennifer Koh stood on the Knight Theater podium, her bright blue hair shining like a cheerful beacon. And Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto, commissioned for Koh in 2021 – she alone has the right to perform it through February 2 of this year – had a bluesy tinge throughout, whether in the mournful or uplifting sections.

Folks who thirsted for melodies had to wait for the last piece of the night, a suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet “Billy the Kid.” Neither Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra nor Jennifer Higdon’s suite from her opera “Cold Mountain” provided tunes worth speaking of.

But while Mazzoli didn’t make melody her goal, she ran through so many moods in her concerto that she consistently aroused my interest. I didn’t take the title “Procession” or the titles of the five linked movements too seriously, except as a vague indicator of diverse emotions. But from the first loud orchestral groan, which underpinned Koh’s swirling solos, I felt connected.

This isn’t a traditional concerto for violin and orchestra or even one for violin against orchestra, as the great fiddler Bronislaw Huberman described Brahms’ concerto. (“The violin wins,” he added.) Instead, it’s a piece where the two go their own ways and occasionally intersect.

The soloist plays almost constantly, which requires the focused tone, ceaseless commitment and intensity Koh provided. Meanwhile, the orchestra makes sounds that are spooky or scurrying or mysterious or occasionally bluntly forceful. They come together at last for a section of yearning (“Ascension”) before an oddly abrupt finale. Somehow, this combination works.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) wisely programmed the two pieces by less familiar composers before the intermission, perhaps to prevent people from leaving at the break. The concert started with Higdon’s suite, which this orchestra co-commissioned. Every Higdon piece I’ve heard has been colorful, mostly restless and surging, and unmemorably derivative in slower sections; this conformed to that forgettable pattern. (Are these really the highlights from a full-length opera? Oy vey.)

Barber’s three essays are much alike: cleverly orchestrated, frequently full of rousing gestures that don’t add up to much emotionally, hinting at melodies without fulfilling our expectations. Guest conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya shone brightly here, drawing beautiful sonorities and controlling the ebb and flow of Barber’s music with perfect judgment. (Despite her Russian name and birth, she has lived in the United States since she was 9.)

She handled Copland’s “Billy” suite equally well. The orchestra let her down with anemic playing during the beginning on the open prairie, but the players kicked into a higher gear when Billy got to town to work his mischief. From there to the exultant ending, Yankovskaya and the CSO found all the pathos and violence in Copland’s first great ballet.

P.S. Talking about unconventional violin concertos reminds me that the much-anticipated Regina Carter concert scheduled for Feb. 9-10 has been postponed, due to an injury. The CSO hopes to bring her in a future season and will perform “The Music of Elton John” in her place.

Pictured: Jennifer Koh by Juergen Frank