The Charlotte Symphony presented “Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty” at the Knight Theater, the title of a three-work evening that included Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, Michael Daugherty‘s Trail of Tears, and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite, Op. 66a. The orchestra was led by Joseph Young, a guest conductor from the Peabody Institute.

It was an interesting choice of programming because, other than all three pieces being narrative compositions, the music didn’t fall under any one theme or even one time period. Billy the Kid and Sleeping Beauty are connected; both are ballet works. Billy the Kid and Trail of Tears are connected; both are based on American history. But each was written 60 years apart (120 from Tchaikovsky to Daugherty) and differ significantly in style and in story.

The orchestra started with Billy the Kid, which loosely follows the life of the famous outlaw. The piece describes the openness and freedom of the western prairies with nostalgic legato expression and the suspense of gun battles with accented horns and booming percussion. Billy the Kid was the first of what would be considered Copland’s Americana ballet compositions, succeeded by Rodeo in 1942 and Appalachian Spring in 1944. Commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for his Ballet Caravan (which preceded New York City Ballet), the ballet premiered in 1938 with choreography by Eugene Loring. The musical suite, performed on this occasion, was first given in 1940.

Billy the Kid is a stylish and cheeky yet at times extraordinarily sentimental piece of music. While it was wonderful to hear it live, the Charlotte Symphony didn’t quite capture all of the dynamic contrast embedded in the piece. It was clear that the musicians and conductor weren’t quite as comfortable with this piece as they would prove to be with the Tchaikovsky. Particularly in the winds, the orchestra wasn’t able to capture the bittersweet sweeping landscapes or the sudden bursts of wild west violence.

Trail of Tears, premiered in 2010, is a flute concerto based on the removal of mainly the Cherokee Nation but also other Native Americans from their native land in the 1830s. Trail of Tears featured principal flutist Victor Wang, who performed with an impressive range of technique, dynamics, and expressivity. He was always clear and precise, sometimes flying through notes and at other times seemingly breathing through the instrument. Trail of Tears is in three movements, and while it is named for and based on the tragedy that surrounded the Cherokee Nation, the piece seems to review the culture and struggle of Native Americans as a whole. For example, the first movement is based on a quote by the Native American leader Geronimo, who was Apache. The Apache were not involved in what is referred to as The Trail of Tears. The third movement is based on a religious dance ceremony of the Plains Indians, and they were not involved in the titled event, either. While it is honorable to pay homage to such an event and such a group of oppressed peoples, it could seem insensitive to link all Native American cultures together as if they were the same. In absence of knowing about Daugherty’s research process for this piece, I am left to say that it raises questions. Does the piece bring thoughtful attention to a marginalized set of people and the wrongs of American history? Or does it perpetuate generalizations that have dominated the representation of Native Americans in white American storytelling with ignorance of the diversity and distinctions of Native American cultures?

The Charlotte Symphony was obviously most comfortable with the program’s namesake, Sleeping Beauty. The musicians, especially the strings (who are particularly featured in this piece and not so much in the others), were most expressive in this final selection. It was clear that everyone, including the conductor, was most at home with Tchaikovsky and therefore more willing to take chances on the big and full moments. In the previous two pieces many musicians (except for maestro Young and soloist Wang, in Trail) stayed relatively still, but when it came to Sleeping Beauty, they swayed and smiled. Although not having much to do with either Billy the Kid or Trail of Tears, it was clear why Sleeping Beauty was not only on the program but also served as the evening’s selling point.