Lawrence Toppman

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; malekjandali.com.

Symphony Unfurls Rachmaninov in His Long, Emotional Glory

By Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) officials have been close-mouthed about which guest conductors this season have applied for the job of music director. I’d guess Lan Shui isn’t one of them, for three reasons.

First, he retired from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2019 after 22 seasons as music director; he may not want a permanent position where he’s again expected to lift an orchestra to the next artistic level. Second, he’d be in his late 60s when he started. Conductors have the lifespan of Galapagos tortoises, but the CSO may want to go with someone younger for the long run. Third, he told WDAV last week how much he enjoys his current life of guest conducting.

So his concerts this weekend with the CSO may represent our only chance to hear him. He led a meaty piece he recorded 15 years ago with the Singapore Symphony: Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, which he played with unfailing passion across a span of a little more than an hour. (Rachmaninov sanctioned cuts, and Eugene Ormandy – his friend and champion with the Philadelphia Orchestra – made about eight minutes’ worth. I’m with Ormandy.)

Lan recorded all of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works with his Singapore crew and obviously loves this composer. His introductory remarks set the symphony up as a voyage from emotional despondence and self-doubt to triumph, and that’s what he gave us.

He delivered the piece with a combination of welcome vigor and excessive languor. He drove the orchestra briskly through fast passages, building to tremendous climaxes. Elsewhere, he slowed way down, which let us hear orchestral voices clearly but drained passages of momentum. If the third movement adagio unfurled at a well-played crawl, the more extroverted passages never lacked luster.

He’d already established that format in Samuel Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal” at the start of the program. Its bustling opening, which represents the buzzing of gossips in Richard Sheridan’s play, bristled with energy, but the romantic theme in the middle of the piece lost its nimbleness at a heavy-footed pace.

Lan proved a sympathetic supporter to pianist Mari Kodama in Felix Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, a work as shiny, superficially attractive and hollow as a Christmas ornament. Mendelssohn finished eight concertos: The Second Violin Concerto – his last concerto, the one we all know — deserves its status as a masterpiece, but the rest can be lumped in with other glittering showcases turned out by 19th-century composers.

That’s no reflection on Kodama. She gave us bravura runs in the opening movement, attempted futilely to wring poetry from the central andante and thundered through the strutting, percussive finale. I own recordings by Murray Perahia and Rudolf Serkin, two of the greatest pianists of the last century, and they don’t get much more out of it.

Kodama’s performance mainly made me want to hear what she’d do with a meaningful work. Her recorded legacy includes all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos; perhaps we’ll be lucky enough another time to get one of those.

Pictured: Lan Shui, condutor; by Chris Christodoulou/BBC Proms London.

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

By Lawrence Toppman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Jessica Cottis Pulled Ahead in CSO’s Music Director Race?

By Lawrence Toppman

“I wonder if I can outdo Beethoven at the top of his game,” said no sensible composer ever during the last 220 years. But I’d bet Felix Mendelssohn had that fleeting thought as he labored over his Second Symphony, which – depending on tempos taken by the conductor – was either the longest or second longest symphony in the world when he finished it in 1840.

The other contender, Beethoven’s Ninth, had premiered 16 years earlier, when Mendelssohn was a teenager. Both consist of orchestral sections about as long as the symphonies the two had previously written, followed by a choral finale with soloists.

But where Beethoven was content with a quarter-hour of singing, Mendelssohn tips the scales in favor of the voices with a 40-minute vocal section. That’s why he titled it “Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible for Soloists, Choir and Orchestra,” though his publishers dubbed it either “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”) or Symphony No. 2. (He wrote it after the one published as Symphony No. 4, but let’s not get into that.)

Conductor Jessica Cottis, three soloists, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and Charlotte Master Chorale successfully brought off this odd hybrid Friday at Belk Theater. Though the piece was initially set to stand alone, as Beethoven’s Ninth does when the CSO plays it, Antonín Dvořák’s tone poem “The Golden Spinning Wheel” preceded it — an interesting balance for the evening, juxtaposing music about amputations, murder and witchcraft with praises to God.

Cottis made her second appearance in two seasons, after conducting four pieces from the last 100 years in January 2022. This weekend’s concerts must have given her a leg up on the music director’s job: She got a chance to show what she could do with 19th-century music, still a huge part of the CSO’s repertoire, and she led a large choral work. The orchestra generally programs two each year, “Messiah” and one other; we’ll hear Verdi’s Requiem next season.

She also charmed the audience with her sanitized account of the tone poem, spoken in an accent that recalled her native Australia. You’ll find a more explicit version here, but her milder one suited the music: Dvořák had written all his symphonies, concertos and great chamber works when he created five tone poems in 1896-97, and his genial personality didn’t suit the darker material. (He had one masterpiece left in him, the opera “Rusalka” in 1900.)

They’re all pleasantly unremarkable and literal: You get spooky “walking through the woods” music for suspense, horn fanfares for hunters and whirling winds for the spinning wheel. Cottis paced it intelligently over a long 27 minutes.

After intermission came the Mendelssohn. She had a firm grasp on the subtleties of the material, found ways to freshen repetitive sections, matched the orchestra well with the  singers and seemed at ease conducting the chorale, which Kenney Potter had prepared thoroughly as usual.

Soprano Patricia Westley brought shimmering high notes to her utterances of joy and blended sweetly with Deanna Breiwick, whose attractive soprano scarcely got an airing. (She shared one duet with Westley and had no solos. Did Mendelssohn owe some soprano a small favor?)

Tenor Joseph Tancredi, a 25-year-old graduate student at Curtis Institute of Music, provided the emotional heart of the drama when he asked God’s Watchman (in the Book of Isaiah) when the darkness encompassing him would pass. He sang with fervor, lustrous sound and an intelligence belying his years, varying repeated phrases and communicating clearly in even the quietest passages. Memories of Fritz Wunderlich, my favorite lyric tenor, didn’t seem out of place.

Pictured: Jessica Cottis by Timothy Jeffes/Sydney Symphony.