Symphony digs in to some most devilish music

It may have been cold outdoors Friday night, but that was still a warmer welcome than Mother Nature gave Grant Llewellyn when he last guest-conducted the Charlotte Symphony. That time, a storm blew in a couple of hours before concert time and laid waste to a street fair on Tryon. But the concert went on.

Friday, the only thunderclaps were indoors and musical. Llewellyn set off a couple of potent ones: the first at the start of the concert to open Liszt's "Mazeppa," the other at the end of the night to close Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances." Even that treacherous one launching "Mazeppa," coming out of nowhere, detonated with a bang. Llewellyn - Welsh-born music director of the N.C. Symphony - had the orchestra firmly in hand.

The night's music had a lot of call for elemental forces. "Mazeppa" springs from a story of a warrior being dragged behind a galloping horse. Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" describes the devil driving the crowd at a tavern into a frenzy. Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" is a piano-and-orchestra blockbuster with a diabolical streak. That streak shows up in the "Symphonic Dances," too.

The paradox is that putting over the wildness usually depends on having the notes in place, racing along or booming away. Llewellyn and the orchestra by and large did it.

"Mazeppa" was crisp and dynamic. Even when the orchestra was quiet, the energy came through. The "Mephisto Waltz" danced lustily.

Pianist Joyce Yang, a winner of the 2005 Van Cliburn piano competition, added a devilry of her own to the "Rhapsody." She filled it with color and dash - as well as a vein of sleek lyricism in the famously melodious 18th variation. Even when she was tossing off cascades of notes, she could give each one a contour of its own, diamond-sharp or silky smooth. And the orchestra made the "Symphonic Dances" just as kaleidoscopic. From the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night hushes to the warm glows of melody, the orchestra filled the music with atmosphere.