This concert, titled “Beethoven, The Michelangelo of Music,” performed by the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, under Lorenzo Muti‘s direction, featured two of Beethoven’s phenomenal masterpieces: the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, “Eroica” and Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op.73, “Emperor.”

With a nearly full house at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, the program opened with an impressive piece by the up-and-coming Chinese American composer, Zhou Tian, who was introduced to this region by COT with a performance of his Viaje for flute and strings in 2016 with flutist, Mimi Stillman. Today’s selection, Nocturne for strings, arranged from a movement of his String Quartet No. 1, was all one would expect from a nocturne: soft, lyrical, and reflective. The strings produced absolutely beautiful sounds. Principal violinist, Tasi Matthews played a mesmerizing solo in the middle section. Principal violist Jacobus Hermsen and principal cellist Rosalind Leavell also contributed to the gorgeous solo string work. It was a most pleasant piece – wonderfully performed.

In a recent survey of leading orchestra conductors, BBC Music Magazine named Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat “Eroica” as the greatest symphony of all time based on all the traditions that were shattered: the advanced harmonic language, the use and development of thematic material, the intense emotional content, and the impact it had on the development of music, not to mention the sheer length of the piece. When he first heard it, Haydn is reported to have said, “From today, everything is different.”

The first movement, from the attention-grabbing opening chords through the sweeping heroic theme and all its variations and twists and turns to its powerful conclusion, is a monstrous piece of creativity revealing the stormy life of a great composer. From the very opening phrases, Muti made it clear that he has been deeply inside this symphony and knew exactly where he wanted to take it. Each theme was shaped with purposeful and effective dynamics. Tempos were steady and on the mark with thoughtful rubato where appropriate.

The core, the heart, and soul of the “Eroica” is the second movement funeral march. Beethoven here takes us to the dark shades of death itself. Nowhere else in all of music has a composer so powerfully confronted death. The fugal passage based on an inversion of the main theme builds with almost unbearable intensity concluding with the horns soaring over the orchestra. It was a magnificent moment.

Movement three, a lively scherzo, featured a passage in the trio section for three horns, the first time this appeared in symphonic tradition. It was sharply played by the COT horns led by principal hornist Andrew Merideth.

The fourth movement is a set of theme and variations in which one hears hints of the previous three movements. It is conjectured by some that this movement was composed first and that the thematic material for the three previous movements was drawn from it. Whether or not this is the case, it was given a powerful reading by Muti and COT and all seemed to sense that this was a special performance.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 “Emperor” was composed some five years later with Beethoven at the height of his creativity in his middle period and almost stone deaf. It is expansive and intimate beyond any piano concerto composed before it other than his own Fourth. The premier was at the Lobkowitz estate with Archduke Rudolf (Beethoven’s pupil) as soloist, the only one of the five piano concertos not premiered by the composer himself.

The featured soloist in this concert was Nathan Lee, a 16-year-old Korean American from Seattle. He won first prize in the 2016 Young Artists International Auditions. His Carnegie Hall debut was in 2017 and his Kennedy Center debut is this year. His performance was far beyond his age and youthful appearance. His keyboard touch ranged from tender lyricism to powerful expression of Beethoven’s emotional extremes.

The first movement soared on lyrical wings with the beautiful melody and stunning cadenzas leaving warm thoughts behind. The second movement was a nocturne for the solo piano, a gentle conversation between the woodwinds and the piano. As it quietly ended it built a feeling of intense expectation and then in a magical few measures it burst into the glorious final movement. Lee’s performance was rhapsodic, compelling, and technically sound. Muti’s leadership of the orchestra molded a marvelous accompaniment that was in all regards supportive and communicative.

For an encore, Lee dazzled the audience with Alfred Grünfeld’s Paraphrase on Die Fledermaus Op. 56. The lilting waltzes and frolicking melodies of J.S. Jr. were spiced up with pianistic fireworks and served up with impressive virtuosity.

This was an exceptional and memorable concert from start to finish.