Unlike many a quiet Sunday afternoon, music lovers had to run a gauntlet of colorful crowds in costume and tight parking as legions of hobbits, witches, and star warriors filled the streets for the Durham edition of Comicon. The Carolina Theatre audience was rewarded by a superb performance of two great Romantic works by Robert Schumann (1810-56) and Camille Saint-Saёns. Music Director Lorenzo Muti led a greatly enlarged Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle.
Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B-flat, Op.38, also known as "Spring," opened the concert. The composer was inspired by the concluding couplet of a poem by a friend, Adoph Böttger.
O wende, wende deinen Lauf, O turn, o turn aside thy course,
Im Tale blüht der Frühling auf! For the valley blooms with spring.
The lines evoke the opening theme's rhythm. It is in the standard Classical four movements with a slow introduction beginning with a brilliant fanfare, leading to a bustling allegro before returning to the fanfare. Schumann was a consummate songsmith and this is evident throughout the gorgeous Larghetto. A lively Scherzo leads through a marvelous transition to a rousing finale.
Romantic symphonies were once the domain of full symphony orchestras but have been increasingly taken up by somewhat expanded chamber orchestras. COT's string sections were roughly doubled for this concert, and the Schumann found the brass expanded to four French horns, two trumpets, and three trombones. Muti led a beautifully balanced and nuanced interpretation. The opening fanfare was simply magnificent. The relative intimacy of the hall helped the musicians on the filled stage have as much impact as a full-sized orchestra.
For years Schumann's orchestration was considered flawed. None of this was evident in the extraordinary clarity of each strand in this performance. The woodwinds were superb, with fine solos from oboist Bo Newsome, especially in the slow movement. The middle movements featured fine section playing from the violas and cellos.
After intermission, Saint-Saёns' Third Violin Concerto, in B minor, Op. 61, featured guest violinist Stephen Waarts, a winner of the 2013 Young Concert Artists International Auditions. His appearance was financed by the Charles & Shirley Weiss Young Soloists Endowment. Waarts has a repertoire of over thirty standard and rare concertos and has racked up a number of important international prizes. He is the tallest soloist I have ever seen – I thought of the famous cartoons of Niccoló Paganini's beanpole appearance.
The Third Violin Concerto is the best of Saint-Saёns' three, benefiting greatly from his mature skill with orchestration and his ability to spin memorable melodies. The orchestration has a colorful, Romantic harmonic style, and the composer toys with modal inflexions and remote chords and keys. Written for the great Spanish virtuoso Sarasate, it abounds with violin pyrotechnics. It is in three movements: a rousing Allegro non troppo, a gorgeous barcarolle-like slow movement, and a bright march-like finale that begins with bold recitative-like dialogue. The composer concentrates all the louder, complex textures in mostly non-solo portions while weaving a delicate, diaphanous support for the soloist.
Waarts instantly impressed with the power of his attack and the purity and warmth of his tone. His intonation was spotless, his high harmonics were stunning, and his multiple stops were breathtaking. His interpretation was stylish, and Muti's accompaniment fitted his soloist like kid gloves. Orchestral balance was excellent, and the give-and-take between Waarts and section leaders was a constant delight. Noteworthy in the second movement were delicate horn playing by Andrew McAfee and Emily Farmer and duets between Waarts and Newsome and clarinetist Kevin Streich.
The musicians of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle were in magnificent form throughout the concert. A CD recording of this concert would be an ideal release more apt to attract collectors than collections of excerpts.