On the evening of September 29, the Queen City threw a party at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center to kick off the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s 2004-5 concert season (its 72nd) and to welcome American operatic superstar Renée Fleming to town. The soprano’s career has taken off over the past several years with two Grammy Award CDs, acclaimed performances as Violetta at the Met last season, and the publication of her first book, The Inner Voice , due out in November. She wowed the audience with her sensuous voice and consummate artistry and charmed all with her utterly winsome personality.

The orchestra, under the baton of German conductor Christof Perick, now in his fourth season at the helm, was in fine fettle in a performance of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony and as the accompanist for Fleming’s performance of Strauss songs and a parcel of operatic bonbons. There seemed to be some acoustical deadness where I was sitting (in a side box), and the orchestra had some problems with finding the right balance, especially in the Strauss, but all in all it was a glorious evening.

The program opener was Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, K.385 (“Haffner”). In the summer of 1782 Mozart, under pressure to complete and stage The Abduction from the Seraglio in Vienna, received a letter from his father requesting a symphony for the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner, son of the Salzburg burgomaster. Within several weeks, the symphony was finished, each movement mailed to his father as it was completed. It was, however, late for the actual event and was not premiered in Salzburg. Several months later, in March of 1783, Mozart requested the score be returned to him for a performance in Vienna. His letters indicate he had all but forgotten the music and was impressed when he saw it again. The symphony has enjoyed huge success from its first performance to this day.

The first movement is bright and powerful, a Mozart tour de force, clearly foreshadowing Beethoven. Mozart’s sense of form and shape and his facility for development reached new heights in this work. The middle two movements are pure Austrian charm. Maestro Perick, conducting without a score, was in control throughout and the CSO responded impressively to this delightful work. Nuances were conveyed through the conductor’s baton, the symphony unfolding with economy and precision, each theme revealing more of its meaning with each stage of development. It is the kind of music that makes us weep again that Mozart died so young.

Fleming was introduced to the Charlotte audience with Strauss’s Four Last Songs . I have said for years that my choice of desert island music would be, without hesitation, this gorgeous apotheosis of life from the pen of the 84-year-old composer. Even though the order of the songs and the title of the collection were not Strauss’s but his publisher’s, it just could not be any other way. The music and the poetry are about basic elements of life and mortality. Through symbols and references in “September” and “Beim Schlafengehen,” there are strong hints of the coming end all creatures must face. Then in the last song, “Im Abendrot,” all hints are dropped and the issue is addressed openly by an elderly couple walking hand in hand: “…soon it will be time to sleep…. How weary of wandering we are – is this perhaps death?” The songs end confidently, peacefully, after a quote from the early tone poem Death and Transfiguration . No questions have been answered, and no clear meaning has been mapped out, yet an incredible sense of peace and hope lingers long after the final chords, the last flutters of the pair of larks, have faded away. The scoring is sumptuous, with the orchestra growing in size and power with each song, and the music is filled with wondrous subtle touches, all of which enhance and deepen the meaning of the texts. Strauss had been writing songs for 70 years by this time; he knew how to do it, and he knew how to make use of the full potential of the soprano voice.

On this night, we heard one of the most outstanding singers of our time in stunning performances. The voice at times seems to emerge out of the orchestra as an ethereal instrument of an otherworldly nature. Other times, it soars with emotional intensity, overpowering everything else in the consciousness. Then the voice seems to come from inside us, the listeners, expressing what we know but cannot find words to say. And when it is over, we know we have been somewhere else, some amazing place far away where truth and beauty have touched us and we have been changed. Who can begin to calculate the debt we owe to the creator of such beauty and to the wonderful realization of it on an evening such as this?

In the second half of the concert, we had an opportunity to delight further in Fleming’s voice in four well-chosen arias: “Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur , “Mercé, dilette amiche” (Bolero) from I vespri siciliani by Verdi, the precious “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and “Ebben… Ne andoro lontana” from La Wally by Catalani. The orchestra played an unnecessary, puffed-up Sinfonia from Aïda , after which Fleming returned for encores, including her favorite aria, “The song to the moon” from Dvorák’s Rusalka – I could go home very happy indeed on any night, after this. She also sang her favorite Strauss song, “Cäcilie,” and closed with a Nelson Riddle-type arrangement of “Over the Rainbow,” in which she was relaxed, a little playful, and just – well – perfect.