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Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle's Season Finale: Three Threes by Three

by William Thomas Walker

Music Director Lorenzo Muti's program for the May 14 final concert of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle's 2005-6 season was as enterprising as it was rewarding. It featured two audience-friendly works by living American composers who held true to their own artistic credo. They eschewed pressure to conform to the sterile Academic style that dominated much 20th-century music while emptying the concert halls of the public. One of the Triangle's most prominent and successful composers, Robert Ward (b.1917), was honored by the performance of his latest revision and expansion of an earlier work, forming a triple concerto. The three featured works employed violin, cello, and piano in concerto roles and included artists with Triangle connections – Durham-born Nicholas Kitchen and his wife Yeesun Kim. The turnout in the Carolina Theatre seemed larger than usual with a substantial number of young people present. Only a miscommunication involving the printed program sequence marred the occasion.

The playful Tripolo concerto a tre by Gian Carlo Menotti (b.1911) opened the concert. Commissioned in 1970 by Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra, the title alludes to multiple meanings of three. In the program notes for the Harmonia mundi France CD (HMU 906010), Menotti writes that "the work is in three movements and uses three groups of three soloists each. The first group consists of violin, viola, and cello, the second is formed of oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, and the third is composed of piano, harp, and percussion. The composer aimed not so much for instrumental virtuosity as for the timbres of the various combinations. In the HMU CD booklet, conductor David Amos writes that the work is "written in the spirit of the classical concerto grosso." The three movements are wonderfully contrasted. The vivacious first movement is followed a gorgeous slow movement dominated by flowing song-like melodies, typical of the composer's best vocal style. The brilliant and playful finale bubbles over with boisterous high-jinks.

The standard orchestra layout was modified to form a concertante arch around the podium consisting of violinist Nicholas Kitchen, violist John Pruett, cellist Yeesun Kim, oboist Bo Newsome, clarinetist James Williams, and bassoonist Chris Ulffers. Harpist Emily Laurance and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu were placed behind the other strings, on the left, and percussionist Eric Corwin, on the right. All the woodwinds played with a warm and mellow tone, and the prominent oboe part gave Bo Newsome plenty of opportunities to shine. Menotti's melodies are put through extensive paces and in every imaginable combination. The development is limited, but the rich possibilities of the contrasted sonorities hold listeners' interest. The string soloists soared alone or, more often, blended beautifully together.

Ward's' Dialogues, A Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano Soloists and Orchestra, has a long pedigree. It began as Dialogue for Violin and Cello (1982), a commission by Richard Cormier and the Chattanooga Symphony for its fiftieth anniversary. I heard a Nelson Music Room performance of its next incarnation, a Piano Trio (1984). In 1986, the Meadowmount Trio commissioned an orchestral version.

The latest version of Dialogues, along with the composer's opera Minutes Till Midnight and four of his large choral works, have been inspired by Ward's alarm over the threat of nuclear war for mankind's future. The COT program contained extensive notes by the composer that recounted the piece's evolution and its detailed layout. In Dialogue I, "On the Tides of Time," the give-and -take between the violin and cello portrays the innocent paradise before Mankind developed the ability to destroy itself. After the entrance of the piano, the music becomes increasingly violent. A quodlibet makes use of all or part of the national anthems of Russia, the U.S.A., Syria, Israel, Japan, and China. A short Interlude follows, ending with the trio of soloists "burst(ing) into the exuberant concluding movement," Dialogue II, "On the Joy of Living."

Kitchen played with rich timbre and great care for color and phrasing, coaxing gorgeous sound from his violin. Cellist Yeesun Kim's Zanetto 1576 instrument projected the quietest sound and the most subtle graduation of dynamics. Her intonation was immaculate and her phrasing plumbed the depths of the score. Pianist Meng-Chieh Liu's long fingers seemed magical as he articulated very fast passages with remarkable clarity. He created a resplendent sound that carried well regardless of the dynamic level. Most fascinating was his use of a flat screen for the score with the pages "turned" by a mouse-like device placed next to the left pedal – a cure for klutzy page-turners! Ward's Dialogues was scheduled to be recorded by the musicians the next day. I look forward to hearing the CD. Repeated listening ought to clarify the anthems in the quodlibet.

After intermission, a rousing performance of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" by the COT's brass was led gracefully by Dr. Harold Quinn. The retired otolaryngologist and COT Board member was the high bidder in the conductor auction at last year's gala.

All the virtues of the Menotti and Ward concerti were also present in the trio's performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto. Muti sculpted a beautifully balanced accompaniment, never covering his soloists' lines. The fast pace reflected the early music movement's approach to the classical period. The reduced forces of the chamber orchestra threw new light on some of the inner voices of the score as they interacted with the soloists. The performance was outstanding.

It would not be a Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle concert if there weren't changes in the printed program. This concert fit that pattern except that no one announced the change of the order from Ward-Menotti to Menotti-Ward. Muti usually talks about the music from the podium, but not on this occasion. Robert Ward was warmly called to the stage several times. I wonder how many newcomers may have mistaken him for Menotti?

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