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The great ones make it look easy. Whether it's athletes, actors, or those whose purpose is to accumulate lots of money, they have that certain something that makes people watching them perform think, "Hey! I can do that." It's only when you watch someone or some group that is not quite at that level attempt the same thing that you realize how difficult it is. There is nothing that is more illustrative of this principle than live musical performance. We have become used to perfection because of doctored recordings, and we tend to shell out our money only for those performers who can nearly guarantee that perfection.
On Sunday, January 16, at the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham, our very own Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle (COT) gave a performance that was breathtaking in its seemingly effortless brilliance — in a program that was the equivalent of a tightrope act without a net. Under the direction of Lorenzo Muti, the COT played an all-French program featuring three of the greatest composers to come out of that culture — Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. This was by far one of their most ambitious programs, and they saved their best for what was one of the largest crowds they have ever had. As an aside, it should be noted that the COT has continued to thrive despite one of the most generous ticket pricing policies of any ensemble in this community.
The program began with one of those works that probably everyone has heard at one time or another — "Pavane," by Gabriel Fauré. This has one of the most beautiful and haunting melodies ever written, and principal flutist Allison Dimsdale gave it just the right touch of mystery and pathos to gets it under your skin. It was a lovely opener for the more demanding work to follow. French composers have always had a special affinity for writing for the woodwinds, and Maurice Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" is a prime example of this. The work is actually an orchestration of four (of six) sections of a collection originally written for piano. Except for perhaps the same composer's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, you will not find a more inventive, sparkling orchestration than this. The opening section (Prelude) has one of the most famous oboe solos ever written, and Bo Newsome handled it with great skill and fluidity. It sounds natural, flowing, and inevitable, and the ethereal, heavenly music washing over the audience belied the tremendous skill and practice needed by all the players and the conductor. One of the dirty little secrets of orchestras is that some of them can have dead, or dying, wood in their ranks — especially in the larger ones. The COT is a lean, nimble, professional group, and there is no room to hide.
The afternoon's program stayed with Ravel after intermission as we were enchanted by soprano Louise Toppin singing Sheherazade. As he had done in the first half, Maestro Muti gave a brief description of the work. Much of the text is a surrealistic journey through Asia including dreams and enchanted flutes. The musical term "impressionism" has its perfect example in this dreamlike work, and Toppin has a lovely voice for the style. She seemed less a soloist and more like an integral member of the musical fabric, thankfully without overbearing vibrato. Her diction was crystal clear, and even after eons since my last high school French class, I was able to discern every word and even understand some of the meanings!
It would be hard to pick a "highlight" of such a wonderful concert, but the culmination of this delightful afternoon was a rarely heard performance of "Nocturnes" by Claude Debussy. These are in no way similar to the Chopin piano nocturnes, the most famous musical depictions using that term. The three movements, labeled "Nuages" ("Clouds"), "Fêtes" ("Festivals"), and "Sirènes" ("Sirens"), are vibrant splashes of color erupting from rapidly passed-around motives. The last movement has the added effect of a wordless women's choir, sung very erotically and siren-like by the Meredith College Chorale, Lisa Fredenburgh, director. A further nice touch was that this choir, rather than massed in the center of the risers, was split up and placed apart, giving an added stereo and spacious effect. Although musical performances generally should not be a competition, I can't help comparing this with the North Carolina Symphony's performance of Debussy's "La Mer" — a very similar work in style and difficulty. The COT performed at an equal level and with the same professional sparkle as the group now being vigorously advertised as "America's next great orchestra."
As if a concert of superb works, played as well as any orchestra in the world at a bargain price weren't enough, the audience had the extra bonus of a reception in the lobby afterwards, with complimentary sandwiches, desserts, and wine! C'est magnifique!