Lawrence Toppman

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

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Kwamé Ryan courtesy of

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

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: JoAnn Falletta by Steve J. Sherman.

Pianist Cann Electrifies an Otherwise Staid Concert

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Michelle Cann/Instagram

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

By Lawrence Toppman

How does the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra find these whizbangs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Keitaro Harada by Claudia Hershner.

Charlotte Symphony Gets the Blues

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictured: Jennifer Koh by Juergen Frank

Love, Music, and Secrets: Carey Mulligan Shines in ‘Maestro’ – A Riveting Tale of Leonard Bernstein’s Life

By Lawrence Toppman

Watching the impressionistic, free-form “Maestro,” I felt as if I were attending one of the chaotic parties Leonard Bernstein loved to host.

Celebrities pass by, identified by one name or none. Snatches of conversation hint at secrets and revelations. We drop in and out of people’s lives, without always knowing why they matter.

Your hostess, Costa Rican-born actress Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, remains more in the background, slowly revealing facets of her character. Her husband, composer Leonard Bernstein – hereinafter and always referred to as “Lenny” – sucks all the air out of every room with his exuberance, prattle and almost unconscious egotism.

The film doesn’t pretend to be a biography: For that, go to the “American Masters” profile “Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note.” In “Maestro,” we hear pieces of his mostly unidentified successes in passing, and his musical bombs – “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” “A Quiet Place,” the sprawling “Mass” – barely or never get mentioned.

Instead, scenes bounce back and forth in time and place, ultimately forming an in-depth portrait of a relationship between a bisexual but mostly gay man and a woman who thought she could accept him with all his flaws, including carnal infidelities. Theirs was a one-of-a-kind love affair, and “Maestro” shows you what kind.

If you know Bradley Cooper directed, starred, co-wrote the script with Josh Singer and co-produced, you might wonder whether to call this a vanity project or a labor of love. It’s the latter: Cooper was in high school when Lenny died in 1990, and decades of fandom have translated into an extraordinary performance.

Buried under remarkably apt makeup – forget snarky comments about the nose, which looks right – he speaks in Bernstein’s voices, from the throbbing intensity of the young man to the gravelly, cigarette-tinged purr of the elder. (I haven’t seen this many coffin nails smoked in a movie in years. No surprise that cancer killed both husband and wife.) Cooper bounces and swaggers and slumps and sulks like the Bernstein we’ve seen in photographs, especially on the podium.

Carey Mulligan gives an equally remarkable performance as Felicia. She peels back the actress-socialite’s composed veneer, showing all her joys and disappointments with heart-rending subtlety. Felicia, who had broken off an early engagement to Lenny (the movie doesn’t mention this), realized he’d be her destiny and married him in 1951, when he was still a promising Broadway composer and hadn’t made much impact on classical music.

As he did, and the world claimed him, she began to realize she and her three children would never have more than a piece of this musical polymath. She tried to make that piece be enough, despite his extramarital relationships, and even a year-long separation couldn’t kill their love. (Would gay men really have kissed openly on busy New York streets 75 years ago? I doubt it.)

Cooper directed in a way that’s meant to capture the patchwork nature of Lenny’s frenzied life. Scenes end suddenly or begin out of nowhere. Some of the film has been shot in black and white, some in color. It’s projected in a 4:3 ratio that reflects the way movies were shown in Bernstein’s early years, before widescreen pictures.

We sometimes see characters from afar, at the end of an arbor or ambling on a lawn. Lenny delivers a long monologue with his back to the camera, while we study the uninteresting faces of students listening to him. These affectations don’t detract much from the impact of the story, and moments such as Lenny’s conducting of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in Ely Cathedral snap us back to attention.

By then, Lenny has become the elder statesman who revived Mahler in America and, after 11 fiery years of leading the New York Philharmonic, taught his music to European orchestras who ignored or hated it. As we watch him summon every ounce of energy and emotion to put across Mahler’s most uplifting finale, we experience the kind of musical ecstasy Bernstein felt all his life. We understand why Felicia couldn’t let go of this live wire, even though he was burning her up.

“Maestro” will play at the Independent Picture House, its only Charlotte run, starting Dec. 15. It starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 20.

Pictured: Maestro. (L to R) Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer) and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro. Credit: Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

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.