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.

Mei-Ann Chen Makes a Triumphant Return with Charlotte Symphony

by Lawrence Toppman

The most recent Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert at Knight Theater was Old Home Week. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu got his annual solo outing in Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, which played to his strengths. The meat-and-potatoes 19th-century programming that served the CSO for many years brought three works from different decades of the Romantic Era: Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C major, Bruch’s concerto, César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor.

And Mei-Ann Chen made a welcome return five years after conducting one of the most satisfying oddities in CSO history: A pipa concerto by Zhao Jiping so rare it has never been recorded. Her take on Franck added her to the list of top candidates for permanent music director. More than anyone I know, including French masters Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, she almost convinced me Franck’s lone symphony wasn’t waaaayyyy too long.

She did that, fascinatingly, by embracing its excesses, rather than trying to hide them. The first movement, which grinds a pleasantly melodic theme into the ground through countless variations, acquired grandeur. It began to sound like Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” piling climax upon climax and reaching a kind of luxuriant ecstasy. (Perhaps Franck had read Wagner’s score, as the opera hadn’t yet come to Paris by 1888.)

Chen broadened tempos in the first two movements instead of rushing them, justly confident that the musicians’ big sound and her own passion would carry the day. Then, as Franck continued to chew his slender musical cud in the third movement, her fire and intensity prevented any feeling of lassitude.

She had earlier proved her mettle with Mendelssohn’s only published orchestral piece, which suggested not brother Felix but an opera overture by the earlier Carl Maria von Weber: Carefully crafted, varying in mood from contemplation to tumult, ably scored and melodically unmemorable. Her piano pieces and chamber works demand reappraisal – I’m just getting to appreciate them myself – but on this evidence, she hadn’t found an orchestral voice. (Not that her family’s or society’s lack of encouragement helped, of course.)

Bruch, on the other hand, gave us plenty of melodies in his concerto. It suits Lupanu, whose pairing with Chen proved especially apt. He provided tenderness, sweetness and a sense of yearning; she brought drama and Brahmsian weight to the orchestral portions, never swamping him when they played together but bringing the orchestra to full power when they didn’t.

This piece has not been ranked among the greatest violin concertos, though I’m not sure why: It lacks the profundity of Beethoven or Brahms, the mystery of Sibelius or heart-on-the-sleeve emotions of Tchaikovsky, but it’s as appealing as those by Felix Mendelssohn, Mozart or Shostakovich.

In fact, the whole evening consisted of works musical history relegates to the second tier or below. Michael Steinberg, in his helpful tome “The Symphony,” makes room for discussions of symphonies by Lou Harbison, Karl Hartmann and Roger Sessions but can’t spare a page for Franck’s. Perhaps he’d have changed his mind, if he’d heard what Chen has to say about it.

Pictured: Mei-Ann Chen by Simon Pauly.

Sparkling Grieg, Somber Brahms

By Lawrence Toppman

You can play Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto weightily, with thundering chords and noble grandeur. Or tenderly, with a romantic flame at its core. Or dreamily, with what Mahler called “innigkeit,” a poignant intimacy. Or, if you have enough imagination, with all three qualities in turn, as Joyce Yang did Friday with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra – and all of that in the opening movement.

She flirted with schmaltz in the slow middle section of the concerto, playing at a stretched-out tempo that could have been her choice or guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s. (He preferred those in the Brahms symphony that followed.) But in the finale, Yang returned to the thrilling combination of fireworks and deeper feeling that made the whole package memorable.

The show at Belk Theater began with a curiosity: the second-act prelude from Ethyl Smyth’s opera “The Wreckers.” I’ve heard five of Smyth’s large-scale works, and the instrumental pieces stick in memory longer than the vocal ones.

The opera tells of “wreckers” off the Cornish coast, who lure ships onto the rocks with misplaced lights, kill the passengers and plunder the cargo. This prelude could have been one of the “Sea Pieces” excerpted from Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes:” We heard wind in the rattle of the snare drum, waves in the watery notes of the harp, a storm surging in the brass. The CSO played at the top of its form for Weilerstein, as it would nearly all night.

Yang then delivered not only her rendition of Grieg’s lone concerto but an appealing encore: a nocturne from his fifth book of Lyric Pieces for solo piano. I’m used to hearing the orchestrated version in the Lyric Suite, four Lyric Pieces set by Grieg and Anton Seidl, but her playing had so much color that I didn’t miss the larger sound.

Weilerstein shared a fascinating story after intermission: All three composers on the program met at a dinner in 1888, along with Tchaikovsky. That’s hard to imagine, as the Russian had earlier referred to Brahms as “a giftless bastard,” but perhaps he’d mellowed by then.

Weilerstein then explained his view of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony: It’s a musical response to the anti-Semitism and social decay he saw around him in mid-1880s Vienna, ending in “an apocalyptic destructive fury.” He led a performance that fulfilled his vision: somber, thick with angst, joyless and furiously explosive at the end. Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick likened this symphony to “a dark well: The longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.” We saw the well, but where were the stars?

Weilerstein’s unfussy conducting revealed fresh details in the instrumentation, partly because he went so slowly. The unusually drawn-out second movement, an andante moderato, threatened to become a stately funeral march. The only scherzo in a Brahms symphony, bouncily adapted by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman as “Cans and Brahms,” is marked “allegro giocoso.” That means “playful,” but here it had a stern Teutonic uplift.

The orchestra committed itself completely to these ideas, and the performance cohered in the powerful last movement: tense, thrusting forward, ultimately blazing with energy. Weilerstein had the skill and intelligence to get exactly what he wanted from these musicians. I wonder if it’s what Brahms wanted.

Pictured: Joyce Yang by KT Kim.