Lawrence Toppman

Jandali’s Ear-Catching Concertos Link East, West and Charlotte

by Lawrence Toppman

Those of us concerned about diversity in classical music will smile when learning about “Malek Jandali: Concertos.” Today’s release from Cedille Records unites violinist Rachel Barton Pine, conductor Marin Alsop, clarinetist Anthony McGill – the first African-American principal hired by the New York Philharmonic – and the Syrian-American Jandali, Queens University of Charlotte’s first composer-in-residence.

But that wouldn’t mean much, unless these concertos grabbed listeners for the hour’s worth of music on this impeccably recorded disc. The soloists shine, and Alsop and her Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra accompany them faithfully through every mood.

WDAV listeners may have heard the world premiere of Jandali’s “Elegy” when the Charlotte Symphony played it at Queens in January. The setting was apt; he earned a degree there in 1997 as a piano student of Paul Nitsch, before getting a master’s degree in business from UNC Charlotte in 2004. (Parishioners at St. James Catholic Church in Concord may remember him as the guy who played the organ and directed their choir.)

Jandali’s website includes a discography of well-received recordings, many of which blend European compositional styles with Arabic motifs or performance practices. This new one does the same, in two long-form concertos that seem relaxingly familiar and enticingly unfamiliar at the same time.

As I listened to Pine play the 36-minute concerto dedicated to her, I thought of Brahms for a lot of reasons. Jandali’s piece also has a long and thoughtful opening moment, an introspective middle section and a dancelike finale. (By coincidence, Pine’s instrument belonged to Marie Soldat, a friend of Brahms and the only woman to tackle his violin concerto in her day. I learned this from Cedille’s typically comprehensive booklet.)

But unlike the German maestro, Jandali has a specific program: He’s giving voice to Syrian women persecuted by Bashar Hafez al-Assad, the dictator who has crushed Syria for 23 years. Jandali pays tribute to women who have been jailed, vanished or been murdered for speaking out; his own mother and father were beaten by Syrian police after their son took part in a peaceful protest at the White House in 2011, and they have since fled the country.

Jandali uses the Arabic oud in conversation with the violin, as plaintive voices crying out with dignity and restraint. (Kudos to oud soloist Bassam Halaka.) And maybe that buoyant feeling in the finale represents not exuberance but defiance, as a protest against suppression. That sentiment has never been more timely: The Arab League has just allowed Syria to rejoin after 12 years of sanctions, despite Assad’s continued brutality.

The 25-minute clarinet concerto operates mostly on a mysterious plane, one we associate more obviously with Arabic elements. Some of the subtle, sinuous playing and percussive rhythms would not be out of place in a good Hollywood soundtrack – that’s a compliment – as Jandali slowly brings us into his sound world.

This concerto opens with a section marked “andante misterioso,” and it holds that feeling through the first two-thirds. The middle movement, a nocturne, consists of six variations on a Syrian theme titled “My beloved, how did they take you from me?” – again a cause for contemplation and mourning.

Then, as he did in the violin concerto, Jandali cuts loose in a final movement that breaks out ecstatically. McGill, for whom the piece was written, shows a wildly virtuosic side in a soaring cadenza that offers a feeling of hope after darker musings.

Speaking of hope, I hope the Charlotte Symphony will consider these concertos for the 2024-25 season. I have no idea whether the CSO could get or afford Pine or McGill, but it would be a joy to hear someone perform these pieces live in Jandali’s adopted city.

Pictured: Malek Jandali;

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.

Saint-Georges Gets His Moment, 224 Years After His Death

By Lawrence Toppman

I don’t go to movies for history lessons about classical music; when I want those, I check out historically informed performances. That’s why I enjoyed both “Chevalier,” the film biography of the extraordinary Joseph Bologne – better known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges – and “L’Amant Anonyme,” the world premiere recording of his only surviving opera.

The film opens today; the opera, sung and played with elan by Haymarket Opera Company on the Cedille label, came out nine weeks ago. Both do him honor, the first as a compelling character study and the second as a revelation to those of us who knew only his violin concertos: He wrote for the voice as gracefully as anyone from his era except Mozart and Gluck.

Both those composers turn up as minor villains in the movie, whose historical inaccuracy rivals the nonsense of “Amadeus.” The film begins with Bologne (Kelvin Harrison in a vivid, touching performance) walking onstage as an unknown upstart who whips the snotty Mozart in a cutting contest on the violin. In reality, Bologne was already a famous soloist, conductor and composer when Mozart came to Paris in 1778, and they lived in the same ducal mansion.

The sneering Gluck becomes Bologne’s rival in an operatic duel to see who will run the Paris Opera. The real Gluck never sought that job, and Bologne had been turned down long before Gluck came to Paris. Reigning divas wouldn’t work for a man whose white French father owned a plantation in the West Indies and whose Senegalese mother had been enslaved there.

You do hear a good bit of Bologne’s elegant music throughout the film, though the climactic Romantic era-style concerto comes from other hands. What matters more, in this case, is our introduction to the polymath who became France’s finest fencer, a poet, a soldier and a belated leader of the revolutionary forces that upended the ruling class which raised him to fame.

I neither know nor care whether he really had an affair and illegitimate child with a marquise (Samara Weaving) married to a Royalist racist who despised Bologne (perennial villain Martin Csokas). I do mind the lie that Bologne’s father abandoned the boy after dumping him in Paris and kept him away from his mother (powerful Ronke Adekoluejo); in fact, all three moved into the same comfortable Parisian apartment when Joseph was 9.

Yet the emotional journey of the main character rings true. As Bologne struggles with his Afro-French heritage, trying to please a society that alternately embraces and rejects him according to whims, we feel the pain of a man who’s never on solid ground in his adopted world.

Some of that dramatic tension slips into the two-act “L’Amant Anonyme,” which translates to “The Anonymous Lover.” The widow Léontine, who has forsworn romance, has been wooed with letters and presents by a nameless, unseen stranger. He’s her friend Valcour, who hopes to soften her stance against love before stepping forward. Cedille cleverly put out a three-CD set, offering the music on one disc and the music plus 20 minutes of French dialogue on two others.

Charlotte audiences have heard Nicole Cabell twice in recent months, as the soprano soloist in the Charlotte Symphony “Messiah” and the title role of Opera Carolina’s “Porgy and Bess.” Her lustrous soprano suits Léontine, who gets the opera’s most beautiful music in the plaintive “Du tendre amour,” as she awakens reluctantly to love. Gentle-voiced tenor Geoffrey Agpalo leads a capable supporting cast, and conductor Craig Trompeter and a small orchestra keep the rhythms springing to avert monotony.

Does this improbable opera equal the best of Mozart? No, but remember: Bologne premiered it in 1780, before Mozart wrote any operatic masterpieces. (“Idomeneo” opened in 1781.) “Anonyme” ranks with second-tier Gluck and first-tier everybody else among Bologne’s 18th-century contemporaries, including Haydn and Domenico Cimarosa. It’s lightly funny and genuinely moving in spots, and Bologne himself adapted a play by his patroness, Félicité de Genlis.

We still have a lot to learn about this fascinating man. Much of his own symphonic music has been lost, though he did commission and conduct Haydn’s six delightful “Paris” symphonies in the 1780s. Except for “Anonyme,” none of his vocal works has been discovered.

As both the movie and the thoughtful essay in Cedille’s booklet note, Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1802 and made even free blacks non-persons. Bologne had died by then, and his music was dismissed and discarded, so we’ll probably never know the full range of his talents. Maybe this movie and opera will inspire scholars to keep digging.

Pictured: Scene from “Chevalier”/courtesy of Spotlight Pictures.

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.