Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Concert Brings Balm to A Reeling City

By Lawrence Toppman

Music won’t heat your home, freeze your food or keep your Internet flowing. But if you were one of the thousands of people in Mecklenburg County who lost power during Tropical Storm Ian – I speak from experience – you might have found solace in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra(CSO)’s concerts last weekend at First United Methodist Church.

The CSO’s Classical Series officially begins Oct, 7-8, with performances of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. These earlier concerts, gently priced at $25 and uniting former music director Christopher Warren-Green with Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs, served as a sweet appetizer to the main course.

The program started with restrained merriment in Handel’s organ concerto “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,” passed through the high drama of Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony (his fifth), and ended with an eruption of joy in Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony (his third).

Why put these concerts, co-sponsored by the Charlotte Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, in this church? Three reasons.

First, the beautiful array of organ pipes at Belk Theater, a noble backdrop for CSO gigs, aren’t connected to anything. (That story’s too long to tell here.) Second, all three composers – four, if you count J.S. Bach for the encore Jacobs gave us – played the organ in churches: Handel briefly in Halle, Germany, as a paid Reformed organist; Mendelssohn as an accompanist to his own sacred works; Saint-Saens at La Madeleine, the official church of the French Empire.

Third, as John Apple of the AGO Charlotte Chapter pointed out, First Methodist has superb acoustics and in one way improves on Belk Theater: You can always hear brass and strings distinctly when they play together. I sat in the back row of the balcony and appreciated the extra clarity in every piece.

The program didn’t give Jacobs, the first solo organist to earn a Grammy, much chance to show off. (He won in 2011 for Messiaen’s “Livre Du Saint-Sacrement.”) He brought good humor and nimble fingerwork to Handel’s brief concerto, where he imitated the birds of the title, and both quiet spirituality and thunderous chords to Saint-Saens’ symphony, which has only a supporting part for organ. He really shone in his encore, an A minor fugue by Bach that required virtuosic technique and energy.

Warren-Green and the orchestra came off best in the “Reformation,” Mendelssohn’s most muscular and Beethoven-like symphony. (He wrote it in 1830, just three years after Beethoven died; it celebrates the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a key document in the Protestant Reformation.) We went from the hammer blows of the brass in the opening movement to the tension of the allegro vivace, the mournfulness of the andante and the spiritual uplift of the finale, where Mendelssohn incorporates Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

The CSO played Saint-Saens with equal zeal, but Warren-Green made a curious choice: He took the middle section extraordinarily slowly, aiming for deep serenity but stretching the melody to the outermost limits of what the music could bear – and, to my mind, well beyond them.

The long multi-part finale sprang back into shape at once, capped by the three titanic organ chords that lead into the delightful rippling melody used so effectively in the movie “Babe.” If there can be such a thing as a chill of joy running up the spine, this music inspires it.

“Omar” Triumphs, “Unholy Wars” Struggles

Pictured: Cheryse McLeod Lewis in “Omar” photo by Leigh Webber/courtesy Spoleto Festival USA.

By Lawrence Toppman

“A folk musician and a movie composer.” I heard that fragment of speech, which sounded a bit dismissive, in the lobby of the Sottile Theatre before the second performance of “Omar.” But why should the pairing of co-composers Rhiannon Giddens, who also wrote the libretto, and Michael Abels raise eyebrows?

Composers best known in their day for songs have written operas for 200 years, from Schubert through George Gershwin and up to Rufus Wainwright today. Many authors of film scores have written operas: Bernstein, Copland, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Herrmann, Saint-Saens, Walton and others. And Giddens received classical training at Oberlin College, while Abels has written for symphony orchestras. (The Charlotte Symphony played his “Global Warming” this season.)

In any case, they left virtually no skeptics unconvinced, no eyes dry and nobody’s sense of wonder unstirred with this piece based on the 1831 memoir of Omar ibn Said. They turned that brief and ambiguous book, so short on details about Omar’s passage to America and life as a slave in the Carolinas, into a universal story about a man’s search for self-understanding and refusal to give in to hatred and despair.

Omar, an educated Arabic-speaking man from West Africa, came to Charleston as a slave. His memoir tells us he received cruel treatment at the hands of his first master, ran away, ended up in a Cumberland County jail (surely no other opera contains the plea “Go to Fayetteville!”) and was bought by the relatively kind James Owen, who attempted to convert Omar to Christianity and gets much praise in the little book. Owen may have helped Omar publish his memoirs to show the world Southern slaves were well-treated, but even he probably never knew whether the slave clung to his original Islamic faith.

Writers can adapt this story however they like, and Giddens and Abels did an especially fine job. They quote from it, don’t make significant alternations – Omar doesn’t get a love interest or escape to freedom at last – yet expand it philosophically, as Omar considers his plight and his duty to Allah.

The composers give most of the simpler melodies to the two dozen members of the Spoleto Festival Chorus, who put them across clearly and emotionally. Elements of folk music do come in, as do north African percussion, and all fit. Two women, not described in the book, counsel Omar along the way: young Julie, sung beautifully by Laquita Mitchell, and mama Fatima (dignified UNC-Greensboro and UNCSA graduate Cheryse McLeod Lewis), who supplies balm.

Yet the show belongs to Jamez (pronounced Jah-MEZZ) McCorkle. Spoleto fans heard him in 2017 as a heartbreaking Lenski in “Eugene Onegin.” Here, hobbling slightly on a boot encasing a damaged ankle, he radiated a powerful if sometimes anguished physical presence and a tenor that sailed out over the big orchestra like a lighthouse beacon above a stormy sea. Though the opera rarely approaches atonality, he gets long stretches of declamatory singing, especially in Act 1, and brings each vividly to life.

He will reportedly tour with the show, which goes to Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York before ending up in Chapel Hill. I can hardly imagine “Omar” without him, though if the opera has a long life – and this one might – he’ll have to pass the torch.

Karim Sulayman and Coral Dolphin on kneel on stage in a position of prayer in Unholy Wars. Photo by Leigh Webber.
Karim Sulayman and Coral Dolphin in Unholy Wars; photo by Leigh Webber.

In “Unholy Wars,” a worthy idea got short-changed by awkward execution. Lebanese-American Karim Sulayman conceived the idea, assembled the music and sang most of the numbers in a plangent, flexible and sensitive tenor voice. He wanted to look at the way European composers stereotyped Middle Eastern people through opera, especially in works about the Crusades, and challenge our assumptions by giving those characters individuality.

Unfortunately, he chose no composer later than Handel, whose “Lascia ch’io pianga” (the only familiar melody) capped the 70-minute show. That decision made the production monochromatic and finally monotonous – there’s not a single fast-paced section – and simply showing victimized characters as stereotypes does little to make us care about them.

The small pit band at Dock Street Theatre played with taste and restraint, and soprano Raha Mirzadegan and baritone John Taylor Ward supported Sulayman well, especially in the longest excerpt: Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” where a Christian crusader loves a Saracen, kills her unknowingly in battle, then baptizes her so she can enter a Christian heaven.

This demise, as slowed-down as the rest of the show, made Suleyman’s point long before the end of the number. Why silent dancer Coral Dolphin slowly writhed around the stage, sometimes washing herself with water and sometimes with sand, I cannot guess.

     

In Spoleto Festival Chamber Music Series, Last Minute Changes Can Be Good News

By Lawrence Toppman

Ever-restless Geoff Nuttall, wearing a brown suit and a sheepish grin, paced the Dock Street Theatre stage before concert No. 4. “I like getting emails from you,” the host of the Bank of America Chamber Music Series told the audience. “A lot of them start out in a nice way: ‘I really enjoy your chamber music programs.’ Then there’s the ‘but.’ They go on, ‘But…I really don’t like contemporary music as much as you do.’

“Well, those of you who don’t like contemporary music will be happy to hear we’re not playing Andy Akiho’s ‘The War Below,’ because Alexi Kenney got COVID, and the piece was too complicated to get another violinist on short notice.” One audience member applauded lustily. “Don’t be mean!” Nuttall said with a laugh. “The good news is, Pedja Musijevic will play C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in C Minor instead.”

And there, in 30 seconds, you had the perennial attraction of Spoleto Festival USA’s chamber music concerts: humor, a chatty connection between musicians and listeners, spontaneity at every level and the ability to supply an internationally respected artist on short notice. Musijevic played the piano without a score, so he had the Bach in his fingertips, but he did so with only a day’s warning.

I hadn’t gone to Spoleto on a weekday for many years, and the availability of seats at both the 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. concerts surprised me. They’ve traditionally been full on weekends, but the lesser number of midweek tourists and lingering anxiety about COVID during a spike in Charleston thinned the crowd. (The festival continues through June 12.)

I wouldn’t attribute lower sales to Nuttall’s fresh and ingeniously balanced scheduling. The second program I saw exemplified his deft sonic juggling. It began with a slightly reorchestrated Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, where clarinetist Todd Palmer sailed through the prominent solos usually given to a high-pitched trumpet.

Next came two living composers. Gabriella Smith’s string-woodwind quintet “Children of the Fire” set up a quiet groove, tore it apart to the point of chaos, then set off on a dreamlike, harmonious arc. Tabea Debus turned her recorder into an anxious, fluttering bird through the intense solo “Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight” by Dani Howard.

Then Debus dropped back five centuries to skip nimbly through anonymous Renaissance variations on the tune “La Monica,” subtly abetted by theorbo player Adam Cockerham. Schumann’s Piano Quartet, anchored by gray-maned Stephen Prutsman at the keyboard, ended the program with an ecstatic performance by him and string players from the next generation.

As always, Nuttall prepared the ground for maximum enjoyment. He pointed out that Schumann required the cello to play a low C; cellist Paul Wiancko would suddenly have to re-tune to reach this note for a few moments, then quickly return to conventional tuning to play the rest of his part. Watching Wiancko fiddle frantically with the fine-tuners near the base of the cello added to the pleasure of his warm-hearted playing.

I doubt you could attend two Spoleto chamber concerts without making at least one joyful discovery. I made two.

First, I learned that a sopranino recorder – the tiniest version of that instrument, hardly larger than the fat pencils you give schoolkids learning to write – can sound like something other than steam escaping from an unattended kettle. Tabea Debus played one in the Vivaldi Recorder Concerto in C (RV 443), and the sounds ranged from a pennywhistle-like exuberance to a gentle breeze of melody.

Second, the Castalian String Quartet blew me away with a turbo-charged performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, an agonized piece written soon after the death of his beloved sister, Fanny. (This may have been the best performance of Mendelssohn’s last major work I’ve ever heard.) Nuttall’s own St. Lawrence String Quartet played on the first three chamber concerts and left the rest of the festival to the Castalians, who played superbly together and apart when joining other ensembles.

They and Debus both reside and work in England. We’re lucky that Nuttall keeps finding new faces like these, and Spoleto Festival USA keeps footing the bills to bring them to us.
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Featured Image: Geoff Nuttall (far left) with Owen Dalby, Paul Wiancko, Christopher Costanza, and Lesley Robertson at the Dock Street Theatre. Photo by William Struhs/courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA.

“Angelus,” Lupanu’s Violin Highlight A Mixed-bag Concert

by Lawrence Toppman

Three composers with uncomfortable ties to Russia and the Soviet Union came together Friday in the last guest-conducted concert of the Charlotte Symphony’s classical season.

Vladivostok-born Victoria Borisova-Ollas moved away from her homeland as a teenager in the 1980s and has spent the bulk of her life in Sweden. Dmitri Shostakovich faced condemnation and censorship through much of his career in the USSR. And Jean Sibelius spent the first 50 years of his life under Russian sway: The armies of Tsar Alexander I took control of Finland in 1809, making it an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire until World War I.

No wonder, then, that the current invasion of Ukraine hung over the concert. Even soloist Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who played Shostakovich’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto No. 1, prefaced his encore with the simple phrase “For peace.” He then gave us the sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, soul-soothing music at its deepest.

Karen Kamensek, presumably the sixth music director candidate to come through this season, seemed most connected to Borisova-Ollas’ “Angelus.” The two women have known each other for years, and this U.S. premiere of the 2008 tone poem brought out all the beauty and diversity in its 22 minutes.

Kamensek told us the composer had walked around Munich, absorbing the sounds of that metropolis, and you could hear those elements in the steady pulse of her piece: church bells, birdsong, traffic, hurried conversations among scurrying people, perhaps even the rain and thunder of a quick storm. Though the music never varied much in tempo, changes in dynamics and mood kept it interesting.

Shostakovich’s concerto caught fire intermittently, usually when Lupanu played. It lasts about 36 minutes, longer than any mainstream violin concerto except Beethoven’s and Brahms’, and it needs the most incisive playing to make it come to life. Lupanu provided that, especially in the ferocious passages of the scherzo and the savage humor of the final burlesque.

The orchestra seldom did, except in a few waves of passion during the wilder sections. Most of the time it jogged along correctly, in a manner nearly free of tension and despair. Lupanu’s few minutes of Bach contained more heart than most of the orchestral passages of the concerto put together.

Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, a self-described “confession of the soul” that put him on the world’s musical map in 1902, got somewhat more energetic treatment after the intermission. Yet even here, we heard a rendition where all the notes were in place without special insight.

Kamensek carefully observed dynamic markings, took reasonable tempos and occasionally gave us flashes of high drama. But the dark mystery, the sense of danger, the sudden rush of joy at the glorious start of the fourth movement – these were not to be found, and chills never ran up the spine.

P.S. Anyone still describing Charlotte with the embarrassing adjective “world-class” might consider this: Kamensek assuaged anxieties about “Angelus” by saying, “Don’t be afraid because it’s modern. It’s very cinematic.” No concertgoers in any world-class city on Earth would need to hear that before a premiere.

The concert repeats tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Knight Theater. You can get details here.

Pictured: Conductor Karen Kamensek; photo by: Benno Hunziker.

Another Prime Candidate for Charlotte Symphony’s Baton

By Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra hasn’t specified which of the guest conductors this season and next will be considered for the music directorship in 2023-24. Joshua Gersen took the podium this weekend as a late replacement for Kwame Ryan, who’ll appear next season, so I have no idea whether Gersen even wants the job. But on the evidence of Friday’s concert at Knight Theater, he belongs in the front rank of contenders.

Gersen and violinist Jinjoo Cho teamed for an introspective, insightful and finally incendiary reading of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Gersen also led the CSO through an unfamiliar piece, Errollyn Wallen’s “Mighty River,” and one where long familiarity can lead to boredom in an indifferent performance: Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony, the “Rhenish.” He guided us wisely through the former and blew the dust off the latter with a buoyant reading.

Gersen, who recently concluded a gig as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, introduced the evening by suggesting we think of the pieces as linked by songfulness. “River,” a 2007 piece commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain, uses the British hymn “Amazing Grace” as the groundwork for variations. Barber and Schumann each wrote a tremendous amount of vocal music and made some of their orchestral pieces songful, too.

He might also have said the three were connected by rivers. Wallen grew up and studied by the Thames in London and the Hudson in New York City. Barber studied and taught in Philadelphia, along the Delaware, then lived with fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti off the Hudson above New York. Schumann finished his symphony in Dusseldorf, along the Rhine. All three of these works flow with unceasing energy, and Gersen had his fingers on the pulse of each.

Wallen’s curtain-raiser suggested Bedrich Smetana’s “Moldau” at times, not melodically but in the swirls and eddies of music that steadily built in intensity. She used snatches of the American spirituals “Deep River” and (if I heard right) “Going Home,” as the piece buzzed and thrust forward to a strong conclusion.

Gersen showed us at once how he thought the Schumann should go. The taut, bracing opening movement and breezy scherzo reminded me of George Szell’s landmark recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, my favorite. Gersen relaxed in the gracious third movement, gave us a warm but never ponderous fourth – it’s marked “feierlich,” or “solemnly” – and then swept us through the finale, wiping out memories of the watery horns that marred earlier sections.

Yet the Barber concerto remained the high point of the concert. Joy lit Gersen’s face as he gently suppressed the orchestra in Barber’s quieter solo passages and unleashed it for thunderous climaxes. He also beamed at Cho, who sometimes bounced in smiling approval when she wasn’t playing.

Cho took her earliest solos with a small, sweet, silvery sound, ruminative but unsentimental. Her passion mounted as Barber’s did, and she produced the most captivatingly intense rendering of the beautiful slow movement I can recall. (“She’s a human singing violin,” said my wife, aptly.) The pyrotechnics of the fiddle-busting final movement lifted her, Gersen, the orchestra and the audience to the highest level of delighted delirium.

Pictured: Joshua Gersen by Chris Lee.

Corigliano Symphony Shows Charlotte’s Orchestra at Its Most Dazzling

By Lawrence Toppman

A good conductor can remind us why we fell in love with a piece of classical music. But a very good conductor can make us fall in love with a piece that has always left us cold. That happened Friday night, when Paolo Bortolameolli led an overwhelming performance of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 that finally convinced me of its merit.

He did so first with words, breaking down this complicated work in the longest spoken introduction I remember hearing from the Belk Theater stage. (This is not a complaint; quite the opposite.) Then he did it by leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra through 45 minutes of emotional mood swings that left him, them and us wrung out.

If you know Corigliano, who turned 84 last week, you probably recall his rhapsodic, Oscar-winning score for “The Red Violin.” His 1991 symphony, whose first movement bears the subtitle “Of Rage and Remembrance,” comes from a different place. He responded to friends’ deaths from AIDS in music that churns with distress, plunges into grief, seeks solace and seems briefly to find it, erupts again in pain and finally subsides into an exhausted meditation.

Envision 17 brass players lined up against the back of the stage, like a firing squad shooting bullets of angst and anger. Or string players strumming their instruments like maddened mandolinists during a demented tarantella. Or cellist Alan Black keening through a solo lament that’s picked up by his fellow musicians as it builds to a volcanic outburst, then ebbs away.

To see this live, as you can do tonight, creates an impression that even the Grammy-winning recording by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony could not do. It’s the difference between watching a championship fight on TV and sitting ringside, where every punch seems to land in your solar plexus.

Lest you be put off by such intensity, know that the first half of the evening provides more melodic and easily digestible pieces. Bortolameolli began with an appealing tone poem by his friend, Gabriela Ortiz. (Two living composers on one CSO program? A rarity indeed.)

“Téenek — Invenciones de Territorio” got its world premiere five years ago and has the kind of propulsive, swinging rhythms I associate with other Mexican composers, such as Carlos Chávez or Silvestre Revueltas. Ortiz alternates between disciplined ferocity and mysticism, but the music hardly ever stops percolating.

Christine Lamprea took center stage for Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 1, the shorter and more accessible of his two concertos for that instrument. It offers snatches of folk songs throughout, and the composer spoke of it as a memorial to young soldiers killed in World War II. Yet Bortolameolli asked us to think of it in coded terms, like the works of Shostakovich when he had to placate Stalin. (I’m not wholly convinced: Unlike Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Kabalevsky seemed comfortable with the mind-dulling tenets of “socialist realism” in art.)

Bortolameolli and Lamprea made a case that the merriment is meant to be hollow, the melancholy sections slightly ironic, the humor more sardonic than bemused. Her lustrous and fervent playing made the whole thing memorable, rather than merely attractive.

I left wondering what Bortolameolli might do with traditional repertoire of the 19th century. Any guest conductor may be assumed to be auditioning for the music director’s job that Christopher Warren-Green will leave this summer. Whoever replaces him will have to serve up Tchaikovsky and Brahms, if perhaps in smaller doses than Charlotte has traditionally heard. Can Bortolameolli bring Rachmaninov to life, as he did Corigliano?

Pictured: Paolo Bortolameolli by Josefina Perez.

Unconventional “Pathétique” Caps Unusual Charlotte Symphony Concert

By Lawrence Toppman

I have long believed the way a conductor approaches Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony depends on whether he thought the composer killed himself.

Was Tchaikovsky a tortured, unstable neurotic who took his own life – either by choice or under pressure from court officials — because his homosexuality created a scandal? Or was he a man who, having sketched out a third piano concerto and discussed a concert tour, simply caught cholera and died?

Kensho Watanabe’s interpretation put him firmly in the first camp Friday night at Belk Theater. His performance drove every emotion in the piece to its outer limits, whipping the orchestra into frenzies and dropping it into funereal reveries. Most of the audience rewarded him with a roar of approval. Mine will be a dissenting voice.

Watanabe and pianist Sara Davis Buechner gave sympathetic renditions of two unusual pieces before intermission: Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” a tribute to the composer’s late mother, and Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, with a middle movement that hushes the orchestra and lets the soloist shine in a mini-sonata with a cellist. (Alan Black played his smaller part feelingly.)

Clyne’s work for 15 strings initially seems a cousin to Samuel Barber’s orchestration of his Adagio: Both use only strings, have layered fragments of melody and project the quality of a lament. (Barber’s adaptation of the slow movement from his string quartet didn’t start that way but has acquired this meaning over time.)

Yet Clyne’s sparse use of the strings and refusal to resolve the wispy, touching fragments of sound into a climax make her closer kin to Morton Feldman, though with more directly communicated feelings.

Schumann wrote her concerto as a teenager, assisted to some degree by her future husband. (Robert set his piano concerto, written a decade later, in the same key.) Yet her music owes more to Liszt in its moments of high drama and hints of gypsy wildness in the finale, and it owes nothing to anyone in its tender passages.

Buechner moved fluidly from bravura sections to gentler ones, reminding us in the long solo of the intermediate romanze that Clara Schumann wrote beautiful songs. Watanabe conducted with such joie de vivre that Buechner rocked with joy on the piano bench when not playing.

Watanabe told us with the agonizingly slow opening moments of the Tchaikovsky where he intended to take us. We immediately entered a gloomy dream, and he snapped us out with a thunderclap to start the first movement allegro. From there, each movement took on the hint of madness that plagues a hypersensitive brain.

The modified waltz of the second movement, now restless and bouncing, lost all elegance and warmth. The third movement march, bustling so feverishly that it recalled the scurrying mouse music in “Nutcracker,” built to a nightmarish frenzy. (Kudos to the orchestra for playing it well at that speed.)

Tchaikovsky the manic-depressive showed up in the finale, which alternated between the now-familiar melancholia (punctuated by long pauses) and bursts of nervous energy that slowly petered out to nothingness, as if the exhausted composer had finally collapsed.

Perhaps your interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s last finished symphony (he left sketches for another) also depends on your understanding of the title. After rejecting the name “Program Symphony,” because he didn’t want listeners guessing what the program was supposed to be, Tchaikovsky chose a Russian title meaning “passionate.”

His brother Modest suggested the French “Pathétique,” usually translated as “pathetic.” That stuck, perhaps over the composer’s objections, when he died nine days after the premiere and the publisher printed it on the score. If you’re looking for the pathetic Tchaikovsky, you’ll find him when the concert repeats tonight.

Pictured: Kensho Watanabe, conductor; by Irina Belashov.

Conductor Cottis, CSO Catch Fire with Lesser-Known Works

by Lawrence Toppman

Each guest conductor in this Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) season must be considered a candidate for Christopher Warren-Green’s job, once he steps down as music director this summer. So what they conduct may be as revealing as how they conduct it.

Jessica Cottis led the CSO through four pieces Friday at Knight Theater, all from the last 100 years and three unknown to most of the audience and probably many of the musicians. The orchestra responded with vital, colorful performances across a wide range, from Ravel’s glittering piano concerto in G to Stravinsky’s galumphing ”Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant.”

She saved the longest and best for last: Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” where the players romped through bits of symphonic swooning, parodies and Broadway-style tunes. Whatever Cottis may be like in Romantic Era works that make up so much of the CSO’s repertoire, she’s firmly at home in music of the 20th century.

Cottis started with a piece from our own time, Jessie Montgomery’s seven-minute “Strum” for string orchestra. Players plucked and bowed through fragments of melody that ebbed and flowed, changing in mood from celebratory to plaintive to astringent. The orchestra became a big guitar in Montgomery’s hands, right up to the warm-hearted conclusion.

Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, who released an album of Ravel’s piano music in 2017, soloed in Ravel’s concerto. He took at face value the composer’s statement that he wanted not to be profound but to entertain, as Mozart and Saint-Saens did.

Goodyear brought out the first movement’s breezy, jazzy flavor, stressing associations with the piano concerto Gershwin had written four years earlier in 1925; meanwhile, brass and woodwinds made ripely raucous interjections. The slow movement, meditative and dreamy in other hands, moved steadily forward with reserved dignity, and the speedy finale sparkled.

The London-based Cottis introduced the Circus Polka after intermission in a voice bearing traces of her native Australia, telling us George Balanchine choreographed it for 50 humans and 50 elephants in pink tutus. Its elephantine wit always seems labored to me, but for once it bounced along in high spirits, right up to the polka-style quotation from Schubert’s “Marche Militaire.”

Cottis neglected to say that Balanchine also choreographed “Deadly Sins” for its 1933 debut in Paris, creating a “ballet chanté.” The leading role of Anna was both sung by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, and danced by Tilly Losch to indicate facets of the character’s personality. (Losch, who reportedly resembled Lenya, was married to the impresario who paid for the production. Draw your own conclusions.)

The CSO didn’t use a dancer, letting soprano Lindsay Kesselman sing Anna I and the small part of Anna II. She steered away from Lenya’s sardonic bitterness, taking Anna instead from cheerful naivete to tamped-down desperation and finally resignation, as experiences with grasping and acquisitive men beat her down. She and the four singers depicting Anna’s finger-wagging family – William Edwards, Reginald Powell, Zachary Taylor and Robert Wells – all come from North Carolina, a pleasant touch.

Yet even here, the orchestra remained the star. The acidic nature of Weill’s score came out, with hints of “The Threepenny Opera” and “Mahagonny” seeping through. (Bertolt Brecht supplied texts for all three.) The players seemed at home in the jazzy cabaret style – how rare that is for them! – and gave the appearance of improvisation, so fresh were their snarky sounds. Kudos to Cottis for showing them the way.

The concert repeats Saturday, January 29, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go to charlottesymphony.org.

Pictured: The Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center; Courtesy Charlotte Symphony.