Tonight’s offering was an eclectic collaboration of music, stories, dogs, and cider – one of the stranger concepts for a concert that I have reviewed lately. It seemed indicative of the post-pandemic shift towards personal connections, following our passions, and standing up for what we believe in, while remaining grounded and accessible to audiences who might not prefer the concert hall over a casual night out. The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle has begun presenting a series of community events loosely titled “Beer-thoven” concerts, beginning with a fine performance by violinist Geneva Lewis back in September. These programs seek to present chamber music in a more relaxed arena (usually an awesome local brewery!), while supporting local nonprofit organizations in donation-based performances. For this event, Bull City Ciderworks’ Durham location hosted COT Musicians and storytellers from The Monti, benefiting the Animal Protection Society of Durham.

The APS of Durham has been helping animals since 1970, and has managed the Durham County Animal Shelter since 1990. APS relies on donations from caring individuals and corporations to feed, shelter, and provide medical attention for the nearly 5,000 stray, surrendered, abandoned, abused, and neglected animals it cares for each year. Staff members including Kat Benson, Events and Communications Manager at APS, discussed their community works and let attendees spin a trivia wheel (with prizes!). The audience met some of the dogs up for adoption: Coltrane, Cuteness, Frankie, and Jersey, who were excellent hosts and ambassadors. Bull City Ciderworks’ Durham tasting room is a contemporary, spacious place to hang out, play board games, and try some tasty ciders in a wide variety of flavors. Also present outside was La República’s taco truck for a casual bite to eat. Despite the low-key setting, the stories were powerful and the music was excellent.

The tasting room was packed and it took a little while for things to kick off – a good thing, giving people ample time to park and walk from several blocks away, get through the beverage and food truck lines, and try to find a seat (no easy task!). A brass quintet heralded the start of the event with the bright, cheery ”Fanfare to La Peri” by Dukas. Ganesh Om and Ed Gunther on trumpets caught everyone’s attention, supported by Logan Fischer’s warm, sonorous horn, and the powerful sound of trombones played by Seth Frack and Sean Devlin.

Though the official event title was “Beer-thoven,” The Monti’s theme for the night, explained Executive Director Jeff Polish, was “Four-Legged Friends.” Polish told a quick, hilarious anecdote to set the tone for the evening, and introduced the first storyteller. Colin Ryan and his dog Remy (who spent most of the story under a table, eating Cheerios) appeared for an uplifting story about healing after trauma. Although heartbreaking at times, Ryan’s story showed that the title of “the best dog ever” is “an infinite tie,” because animals show us how loving we can be.

Next, violinist Erica Shirts and bassist Zachary Hobin played the “Prelude,” “Gavotte,” and “Cradle Song” from Reinhold Glière’s duos for violin and cello, pleasant Romantic-era works with harmonious and soothing violin lines, underpinned by a nice mellow bassline that at times gave the rhythms a quasi-contemporary groove because of instrumentation, but remaining conservative and comfortable. The audience seemed less interested in the music than the stories, taking the opportunity to enjoy their drinks and visit with each other, but the music generally cut through the noise pretty well for those who were trying to listen.

The next storyteller, Kristina Cusenza, explained what it means to “foster fail,” and how her beautiful dog Weston (also in attendance, punctuating the story with occasional friendly barks) helped her heal after her mother’s death. Her story remained grounded and humorous, but with a nod towards a comforting spiritual element: Weston’s birthdate was the day after Cusenza’s mother died, and Weston was able to look at her with the same understanding, honey-brown eyes Cusenza missed so much from her mother.

Erin Munnelly Denning, flute, and Kevin Streich, clarinet, took to the stage next with a more complex and contemporary set of works: Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Choros No. 2 and Robert Muczynski’s Duo for Flute and Clarinet. Alternating between introspective and rhythmic, these pieces explored seemingly the full ranges of the instruments and showcased a high level of both technical and expressive skill. The light level of amplification provided by The Monti’s sound mixer Michel Holbrook helped make sure both parts always carried across the crowd very well, even in their still and thoughtful moments.

Anna Valvo didn’t bring a dog with her, but told stories about her experiences fostering dogs. She had begun to challenge herself with tougher cases over time: medically needy, older, or traumatized dogs, but faced a chilling conflict that made her rethink the whole experience – only to return to fostering! She emphasized the impact that fostering can have on both an animal and a person. All three of the evening’s stories were personal, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting, commanding rapt attention from all the dog owners and animal lovers present. The brass quintet returned to conclude the evening, playing 3rd movement of the Ewald Quintet which was a little calmer than their opening, but gradually built to a triumphant expression of joy.

These collaborating organizations added a layer of fun, vibrant artistry to this community event while staying grounded and accessible, as beer and dogs will tend to do! Tonight was about unity in a casual setting (and even running a little fast and loose at times), showing that the arts don’t have to be formal to be effective. In fact, the personal elements of the storytelling, the closeness of the musicians to their audience, and the chance to interact with the animals directly benefiting from the Animal Protection Society of Durham’s efforts all exemplified the way the arts can bring a community together.

Plus, who can pass up a chance to meet cute dogs?

APS continues to rescue and adopt out dogs and cats in the Durham County area, and there are a variety of ways to help support their organization, including volunteering, purchasing items on their wish list, and through partnership and sponsorship opportunities. The next “Beer-thoven” event won’t be until February 2022, but the COT will return to Durham this weekend with its Soundscapes program.