The intimate sanctuary of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was doubly apt for the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle‘s (almost) all Handel program. In contrast to its regular base, the Carolina Theatre of Durham, the splendid acoustic of the sanctuary was ideal for the program’s mix of vocal and instrumental music. Moreover, the COT was formed here as the St. Stephen’s Chamber Orchestra on October 17, 1985, under the baton of George Taylor, then violist of the Ciompi Quartet. Most of this concert was led by Lorenzo Muti, the COT’s music director since 1988. The pews were packed with music lovers for this special celebratory concert.

The concert opened with the overture to Handel’s opera Arianna in Creta, HWV 32. The opera premiered January 26, 1734, in the King’s Theatre. This was during the bitter rivalry between King George II and the Prince of Wale’s Opera of the Nobility, which had lured away several of Handel’s singers. The plot revolves around the myth of the Labyrinth of the Minotaur. King Minos, and his daughter’s love for Teseo. The overture is in the form of a short sinfonia with seamless shifts in tempo.

Muti led a taut and stylish performance. An additional pair of oboes added to the majestic air of the grave opening, providing the “gravitas” so beloved by Londoners. Each string section entered in turn in the fast paced section, followed by a dance-like episode. The sanctuary’s intimacy allowed the superb harpsichord continuo playing of Beverly Biggs to be readily heard throughout the concert.

I heard the repeat performance of the complete performance of Handel’s Alcina, HWV 34, last fall at UNC. The opening night, reviewed by Ken Hoover, had featured this concert’s vocalist in the title role. Soprano Susannah Stewart sang Alcina’s aria No. 38 from Act II, “Ah mio cor! schemito sel!,” in which she expressed her anguish at her betrayal by her enchanted lover Ruggiero, followed by her fury. Stewart’s intonation and diction were superb. Her voice was evenly supported across its range while its precision was leavened by warm tone. Her control of dynamics was excellent, from hushed to soaring highs. Her subtle ornamentation of da capo repeats were lovely touches. A lovely episode was a quite introspective section supported by delicate strings and Biggs’ gorgeous lute stop. Muti led an ideally scaled accompaniment of strings and keyboard.

Next came one of two major selections on the program from Handel’s set of 12 concerti grossi published as Opus 6. (He chose Op. 6 to exploit the London popularity of the multi-movement concerti grossi of Arcangelo Corelli’s Opus 6.) Although identified as No. 6 in the printed program, the work given had to be Op. 6, No. 7, in B-flat, HWV 325. It is in five movements: Largo, Allegro, Largo e piano, Andante, and Hornpipe. Muti led strongly characterized performances of each movement with exact rhythms and proper dynamic shadings. Violinists Tasi Matthews and Sarah Griffin had solo turns, supported by the continuo of Biggs’ harpsichord and cellist Rosalind Leavell.

The pre-intermission portion ended with a piece added to the program within the last three weeks. It was the North Carolina premiere of An Invocation (2012) by composer Steven Serpa (b.1976). The very active composer is currently a doctoral candidate at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Originally commissioned as an oboe chamber work to pair with Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F, K.370, Serpa’s muse was sluggish until he was inspired by the evocative poetry of Jeffrey Beam. The original string trio version has been expanded for string orchestra and can be performed with either oboe or soprano saxophone. Serpa said this was only the second performance of the string orchestra version which had been premiered by the Austin Symphony. It seems to be in four continuous movements: lively, melancholy, faster, and darker, slow.

The superb soloist was Anna Lampidis. Her seamless breath control and her ability to weave extended melodies, which abounded, were delightful. Conductor Niccoló Muti supported her performance with great attention to detail such as rhythmic string support in the first section, lush strings of the second with violist Simon Ertz‘s solos, and extended pizzicatos of the third. Sections of this were reminiscent of English pastoral music such as Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending. It is tonal with attractive melodies sure to please. The Serpa performance was preceded by poet Beam reading his complete poem.

Concerto Grosso in F, Op. 6, No. 9, HWV 327, was heard after intermission. It is in six movements: Largo, Allegro, Larghetto, Allegro, Menuet, and Gigue. Again on the podium, Lorenzo Muti made the most expressive points in each movement with close attention to color, dynamics, and rhythm. Violin leaders Matthews and Griffin had solo turns with the continuo of Biggs and cellist Leavell.

Soprano Stewart returned to perform a rarity – one of Handel’s many Italian cantatas: Crudel Tiranno Amor, HWV 97. It was probably composed for a benefit concert at the King’s Theatre at the end of the 1720-21 season for the soprano Margherita Durastanti. Stewart fully exploited the wide expressive possibilities of the text with clear delivery of words, nuanced for color and tone. Her voice never lacked power or focus; hers is a talent with much promise. She is currently a senior Kenan Music Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying with Jeanne Fischer.

The concert ended with a complete performance of the Third Brandenburg Concerto in G, S.1048 by J. S. Bach. The COT musicians gave a rousing, satisfying performance, led by Elizabeth Johnson who had bid to conduct at the 2018-19 gala “Little Night Music.” Maybe a complete Brandenburg concert by the COT ought to be considered?