Lawrence Toppman

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

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Kwamé Ryan by Zycopolis Productions.

From Faust to Triumph: A Night of Orchestral Wonders

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Conductor Christopher James Lees/ courtesy Charlotte Symphony.

Musical Metamorphosis: Melissa White Shines at the Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Melissa White by Dario Acosta.

Fleming Defies Time, Genre Boundaries in Charlotte Symphony Gala

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Renée Fleming by Andrew Eccles/Decca

Bach Akademie Charlotte Closes with Old-School, New-School Bachs

By Lawrence Toppman

One can drown happily in words at the main Bach Akademie Charlotte concerts: Helpful words from artistic director/host Scott Allen Jarrett, erudite words in Brett Kostrzewski’s essays in the program guide — surely the most elaborate and attractive in Charlotte — librettists’ words projected on walls behind the chorus, and inspiring words expertly sung by Baroque specialists from around North America.

So for once, let’s think about something else.

Consider the way concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky’s consoling violin, warm but not schmaltzy, reassured us of bliss as she accompanied a trio of singers wondering when salvation would come in J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Or the way principal trumpeter Josh Cohen brought high clarion interjections to the cantata “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens,” mirroring the text about awakening our senses.

The longer you listened to the final concert of the 2023 season, broadcast live Tuesday by WDAV-FM, the more details you heard. The wooden flutes of Colin St. Martin and Alaina Diehl, warmer and more rustic sounding than metal instruments, struck a pastoral note in the opening cantata. The continuo playing of cellist Guy Fishman and bassist Sue Yelanjian laid down a subtle but solid carpet of sound underneath the vocalists.

Naturally, the singers performed admirably. Gene Stenger stood out as the Evangelist and tenor soloist in the last section of the Christmas Oratorio, repudiating foes of Christianity (especially Herod) in the one really dramatic moment of that cycle of six cantatas. Yet I stayed attuned to the instrumentation even then, enjoying the way Margaret Owens and Kristin Olson cushioned his voice with their mellow oboes d’amore.

One of the two most exciting moments of the night came at the very beginning, as the whole orchestra bounced into the opening to “Unser Mund.” Bach repurposed the overture to his fourth orchestral suite for this cantata, adding trumpets and timpani (played grandly by Jonathan Hess), and Myers Park Presbyterian Church rocked with the rich sound.

Interestingly enough, the other highlight was the most ethereal. Jarrett conducted the eight-minute “Heilig” (Holy”) of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the most gifted of Johann’s sons and the most interesting Classical Era composer behind Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Four soloists representing angels ascended to the rear balcony of the church, leaving the other 12 members of the chorus up front behind the orchestra. After a graceful alto solo by Sylvia Leith, the angels and humans entered a strange but instantly appealing dialogue. The humans sang conventional praise of God in robust fashion, while the celestial quartet quietly explored less conventional harmonies. (I wonder how far God’s tastes go. Would the Lord occasionally plug Arnold Schoenberg’s astringent cantata “A Survivor from Warsaw” into the heavenly iPod?)

As I listened, I wished for one more thing besides a chance to hear a wider range of composers at future festivals: Pieces that highlight only the orchestra, perhaps even soloists within it. Choral singing lies at the heart of BAC’s approach, but surely a Brandenburg Concerto wouldn’t be out of line. If C.P.E. Bach appeals to Jarrett, as he does to me, why not let Fishman take a crack at his A minor cello concerto?

The Akademie has done a first-rate job of balancing vocal works large and small, deep and uncomplicated, by J.S. Bach for six years. Could it be time to think more broadly about the 18th century, without abandoning the German master who gives the festival its name and mission?

Bach Akademie Charlotte Springs into Christmas

By Lawrence Toppman

Before the pandemic, Bach Akademie Charlotte (BAC) anchored its first two seasons with Johann Sebastian Bach’s profoundest utterances, the B Minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion. During the pandemic, BAC settled for virtual performances and lectures via Zoom.

Since then, artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett has devoted himself to celebration in the big pieces on his spring programs: The Easter and Ascension Oratorios in 2022 and the six-part cycle of cantatas known as the Christmas Oratorio this week. WDAV broadcast the Saturday night concert live from Myers Park Presbyterian Church and will do so again Tuesday night.

You have to attend four concerts to get all six segments, which premiered in Leipzig in 1734-35. Jarrett has divided those up and paired them with other works over two evening performances and two matinees. The fest officially opened Saturday night with parts 1 and 2, accompanied by a brief Sanctus in C and yet another Christmas cantata, this one unrelated – though similarly buoyant in tone – and composed two decades earlier. (The fest opened unofficially Friday with a performance by harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.)

I’ve been to three of the four live festivals and have grown accustomed to the satisfying pattern: An orchestra of about 24 musicians, mostly Baroque specialists recruited from around the nation, plays alongside a chorus of 16. Singers function like an all-star sports team: Each comes forward at some point to take solos, and they’re all skilled in Baroque performance style.

Unlike the Mostly Mozart Festival, whose title defines it, this one seldom veers from Bach. Organist Clive Driskill-Smith devoted 40 percent of his Sunday concert at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to other composers, but Jarrett doesn’t diversify. The five concerts he programmed offer 16 minutes of music by anyone else, eight by one of Bach’s cousins and eight by one of his sons.

Any variety in them comes from the composer himself. Even those of us who commit the heresy of wishing Handel and Vivaldi joined the mix can admire the way Bach colors his compositions.

Consider the oboes da caccia, curved wooden instruments bound in leather that look as if they summoned hounds in the 18th century. (The name means “hunting oboes.”) When they enter in Part 2 of the Christmas Oratorio, which depicts the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth, they suggest the pipes of shepherds walking down the hill to see the newborn king.

Jarrett, an informative host, told us the timpani flourishes that open part 1 are probably the first timpani solo in Western music. Those and the trumpet fanfares that followed reminded us that Bach repurposed a lot of this music from secular cantatas, often those written for patrons’ birthdays or name days.

These musical bursts and the opening line for the chorus – “Shout ye exultant, this day of salvation” – set the tone for the whole Christmas Oratorio, which Bach meant to be spread out from Christmas Day through January 6. “The 12 days of Christmas” is more than a teeth-grating holiday song: It’s a period stretching from Jesus’ birth through his circumcision and naming to the visit from the Magi. Except for a brief moment of unease from the deceptive Herod, Bach gives this whole musical arc a buoyant warmth.

Yet for me, the highlight Saturday night was “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (“Christian, etch this blessed day,” as in bronze or marble). Bach wrote it in his late 20s, as a hard-working choir director in Weimar known mainly as a keyboard player, and it has a young man’s exuberance.

It opens with a blast from four trumpets, something he never did again, and it sweeps us away on a tide of positive thinking. Though Satan briefly peeps impotently at us in the finale, the chorus affirms that Christ’s arrival means we can walk in grace henceforth. If that sentiment didn’t send you out of the church on a cloud of joy Saturday, what could?

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.