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Despite the fact that the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle (COT) has existed under its present name since 1988 (founded in 1982 as St. Stephen's Chamber Orchestra), it amazes me that there are still knowledgeable music lovers who either don't know about them or only sporadically attend their creative, unique and, consummate programs. On five or six Sundays every year, always at 3 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, you will find this very special hometown ensemble performing programs that one can always count on to introduce even the most musically erudite of us to something new. Last Sunday's concert was a perfect example of mixing the familiar with those on the periphery of our experience, and the comfortable with a bit of shaking us up.
The COT always has a named program and this one was called "A Chest of Hidden Treasures." It consisted of three composers and three works, all of which you'd probably not include in a list of even their five most well-known compositions. The first half featured non-operatic works by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883), both mostly known for their operas.
Menotti was widely known for his very successful and unusually accessible operas as well as his founding and long tenure as director of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Menotti was commissioned to write the score to the ballet Sebastian in 1944, and while the original choreography was harshly reviewed, the music was recognized quite positively and picked up by other companies. The suite from the ballet score is in seven movements and a virtuoso display for all the orchestral sections as well as the entire ensemble. Lorenzo Muti, now in his twenty-eighth year as Artistic Director and Conductor of the COT, was masterful in balancing the interpretive nuances of Menotti's score and directing the numerous and treacherous technical difficulties. Sitting in the first balcony of this regal old theater, I enjoyed a purity and crystalline quality to the sound that I had rarely experienced. The precision, phrasing and sense of joy that flowed from the stage was such that I was actually sorry to hear it end. Although I hesitate to attribute my feelings to the few additional musicians on stage, I believe the fourth cello in the section (finally!) added greatly to the depth and solidity of the sound.
The following work was played both in memory of, and as a request by, Horst Meyer, a well-loved music lover, Duke professor, and lover of nature who recently passed away and knew that his body would not be present for this performance. Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll is a relatively small, anomalous gem as compared to his overwhelming, gargantuan operas for which he is mainly known. This was first performed by 17 musicians, conducted by Wagner himself in his own home, on Christmas Day, 1870 as a gift to his wife Cosima, and named for their son.
Recognizing that many people just cannot take to the heaviness of Wagnerian singing, but that they nonetheless love the music, there are many Wagner-without-words type recordings. Siegfried Idyll does that on its own. This relatively brief work, certainly by Wagner standards, encapsulates his beauty and sweetness while retaining the chromatic complexity. This is also a work that requires a different sort of virtuosity that the COT handled with a subtle and nuanced expertise. Most importantly, Muti led them through a highly sensitive and lush reading that bordered on the erotic. Makes you marvel at the wonderful possibilities if Wagner had taken even a year off from his epic operas and written some chamber music!
The final work on the program certainly qualified as a "hidden treasure" because of its rarity of performance and remarkable orchestration. Zoltán Kodály's Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song, (The Peacock Variations) premiered in 1939 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. Not surprisingly, since Kodály was one of the main figures of musical nationalism, this was based on an ancient Hungarian folk tune and also became a voice of rebellion against the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands.
A solo oboe (played with the usual sumptuous tone and elegant phrasing by principal Bo Newsome) introduces the theme, which, like many themes of great works, doesn't at first seem to have much promise as the basis for an extended composition. Sixteen variations, and a finale follow, some lasting less than a minute. They are grouped into five sections, each with their own distinctive mood. The central part is a long, dark and anguished cry that could indicate the depths of the travails of tyranny before a clear, clean sky emerges. Orchestral variations usually involve, to some extent, flashy displays of solo and section technical brilliance, and this work is no exception. The COT had no weak links and every moment of Kodály's brilliant orchestration was played with total assurance and adherence to the spirit of the music. While only this program was called "hidden treasures," you can be sure that any future COT concerts will certainly contain many more.