Coping with crisisIn a highly creative production, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle (COT) is streaming two works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Austria, 1756-91). The Wind Serenade in E-Flat, K.375 (1781), was led by assistant conductor Niccoló Muti while the Piano Concerto No. 13 in C, K. 415 (1782-83), was conducted by artistic director Lorenzo Muti.

The evening was a combination of theater and music-making. Letters that Mozart had written to family members (father and sister), a letter to librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, and an admonishing letter from Mozart’s father to Amadeus were read through the course of the evening. Ron Menzel superbly played the role of the letter writer, reading the words verbatim; these scenes were directed by Vivienne Benesch.

Before the program got underway, David Lindquist, President of COT, welcomed everyone to the nominal first concert of the new season. “It’s going to be an interesting season, dealing with the pandemic and at the same time having the joy of once again making concert, after concert, after concert….” He thanked the people (and corporations) by name who gave money to support the COT and introduced the host for the concert: Jeff Polish, Executive Director of The Monti, “a wonderful story-telling group” that has worked throughout the Triangle.

Polish explained that he was “honored… to present this very special concert. We are here, backstage, at the empty Carolina Theatre.” He went on to say that they would be presenting “a behind-the-scenes look at how a presentation such as this comes together,” beginning with a chat with Lorenzo Muti, artistic director of the COT since 1988.

The Wind Serenade, originally written for six instruments, was later revised by the composer for eight players, which is what was presented by the COT. The eight crack musicians: Anna Lampidis and Kelley Tracz (oboes), Kevin Streich and Scott Moore (clarinets), Christopher Ulffers and Marian Graebert (bassoons), and Maria Serkin and Emily Hagee (horns). The eight were physically distanced from each other, and the conductor wore a mask.

The five-movement work begins with an Allegro maestoso. The opening thrice-repeated chords played by the entire octet are heard again at important structural points in the movement. Mozart generously distributes the melodic material through the ensemble.

The second and forth movements are minuets. The first is a rather stately affair with a Trio middle section set in a minor mode. The following Adagio is a tuneful number with individual instruments often stepping into the spotlight. Each musician took full advantage of this chance to shine. The next minuet is chock-full of delightful tunes, some folk-like.

The multi-sectioned Finale is full of optimistic energy, bringing the 20+ minute piece to an exuberant conclusion. The work was conducted by Muti with authority and sensitivity. The players displayed marvelous musicality, playing with great feeling and energy.

Ulffer, now in his 24th season as principal bassoonist with COT, spoke about the orchestra’s appreciation for the support the listeners have offered through the years. He noted how difficult it was for musicians who make a living playing music. He stated that his last performance before a live audience was in February. “Ultimately,” he said, “we want to see you back in the seats, but only when it’s safe.”

Before the performance of the Piano Concerto, the soloist, Enrique Graf, talked with Polish about how he has been dealing with the pandemic. This performance, like Ulffer’s, was his first with an ensemble since February.

The C Major Concerto was the last of three Mozart wrote for a proposed subscription concert of his works, with the composer at the keyboard, of course. Although Mozart scored the work for winds, brass, and percussion, he made it clear that the work could be performed with only a string orchestra, which is the version we heard Tuesday night.

The Allegro abounds with wonderful, cheery tunes. An opening melody for violins that is then imitated throughout the strings is heard. The piano eventually enters with this tune. The movement allows plenty of opportunity for fireworks from the pianist, and Graf took full advantage of the occasion, displaying brilliant, sparkling playing.

The Andante is a more lyric, elegant affair. The pianist played with wonderful freedom and flexibility. The Rondeau: Allegro presents a jolly tune, first played by the piano; the melody returns several times. The episodes delve into some darker material, including one with plucked strings, but the opening tune always chases away the dark clouds. As in the first movement, there are plenty of moments where the pianist gets to strut his stuff, and Graf did not shy away from these passages. The entire work ends curiously in a subdued mood.

Throughout, conductor and pianist worked as a collaborative team, matching each other’s energy. The playing was first rate and ensemble was as tight as one could want. The hour and a half program was an outstanding example of how creative ways to present music (and theater) can help fill the void that the pandemic has created for live performances.

This performance will be available for digital subscribers through June of 2021. See our sidebar for details.