Outside the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, the sky was azure blue and grey; the trees, just past their peak brilliance, revealed deeper red and brown hues. And during the The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle‘s “Basically Bach” program, conductor Lorenzo Muti described how Bach exploited orchestral colors. In a jovial voice, he warned the audience, “Don’t read the text [of the two cantatas]…; it’s a little on the gloomy side.” Indeed J.S. Bach’s sacred cantatas reflect the religious fervor of his time. But it is easy enough simply to enjoy the musical richness. The featured vocal artists, Mary Gayle Greene (Appalachian State University) and Donald Milholin (Greensboro), reflected those darker shadings of his melodic palette with beautiful readings of Bach’s cantatas 170 and 82. Joining forces with the COT, they gave a commanding performance.

The opening work was Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor for two oboes, strings and continuo F.VII, No. 9 (or RV 535), featuring as the outstanding soloists Anna Lampidis and Bo Newsome from the COT. Listening to Vivaldi’s double concerto, I was reminded that Bach was inspired by the Italian composer’s inventive, exuberant writing — and how much pleasure it is to hear (and to play). The pulsating rhythmic drive and rapid-fire exchange between soli and tutti in the fast movements and the lovely melodic lines with lush suspensions and counterpoint in the slow movement are challenges accomplished musicians love. Lampidis and Newsome clearly hit the mark with their brilliant performance, obviously pleasing the maestro. The audience rewarded them with a roaring approval.

The centerpieces were the Bach cantatas. Mary Gayle Greene (contralto) performed “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seenlust” (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul). Written in 1726 for the sixth Sunday after Trinity and with a text from Georg Christian Lehms, it was intended to inspire followers to lead a virtuous life. But the composer was not dedicated only to a pious intent — Bach clearly looked south, toward the Italian opera. And he must have written this cantata with a particular singer in mind.

A distinguished artist and frequent guest across the state of North Carolina, Ms. Greene has an extensive repertoire that includes oratorio works of Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Verdi. She has a gorgeous voice and the ability to color melodic lines with just the right amount of vibrato. And though she met up with one or two precarious spots just below her comfort zone, hers was otherwise a stellar performance.

Don Milholin (bass baritone), who also has extensive experience performing in the opera and oratorio, sang “Ich habe genug” (I have enough). Written for the Feast of Purification on February 2, 1727, the libretto is based on Mary’s encounter with the aging Simeon at the temple. Again, the theme is dark, thus calling for the low tessitura of a bass singer. An imposing figure (he is very tall), Milholin has a powerful instrument. and he had no trouble rising above the orchestra. Bringing the story to the fore, he projected Simeon’s nuanced emotions with facial expressions and articulate diction. And like the previous work, this bass cantata has beautiful melodic lines that call for strength and endurance. His performance was magnificent — one I will remember long past this writing.

It would remiss to omit Jill Muti (flute) and Anna Lampidis (oboe d’amore), who performed principal solos in Cantata 170; Alexander Ezerman (cello) who played the principal solo part in the Vivaldi Concerto; Bo Newsome (oboe), in Cantata 82 “Ich habe genug”; “and Ann Parks (organ), who filled out the continuo. My single disappointment was logistical — if only the harpsichord had been mic’d. Elaine Funaro is a wonderful player but the instrument, which adds such a lovely sparkle to the baroque orchestra, was conspicuously missing due to low volume.

The orchestra wrapped up the performance with the Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G — a taste of Bach’s brighter, secular side, and a lovely way to end the weekend.