In an attempt to broaden its repertoire, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, with its conductor, Lorenzo Muti, often dig deep to find seldom-heard works that suit the size of the ensemble. Sunday’s concert, devoted to French music, showed why, in spite of great playing, the two works in the first half of the program must have been retrieved from the bottom of the barrel.

But let’s begin with the good. The afternoon’s Carolina Theatre program featured cellist Laura Buruiana performing Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto in a minor, Op. 33. This is an elegant, polished work, one of the most popular cello concertos in the repertoire. Buruiana, a 24-year-old native of Romania, is a winner of the 2003 Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York, and on the basis of her performance here, deservedly so. She demonstrated impressive technique and musicianship to match. Buruiana has probably played this piece a thousand times in practice rooms and several times in concert; the audience has probably heard it just as often on WCPE, but Buruiana’s on-stage demeanor said, “This is a piece of music worth paying attention to.” Even when she was not playing, she was totally engaged in the music, swaying in rhythm and watching Muti and the other orchestra players intently. Muti and the orchestra accompanied her with great sensitivity to her dynamics and tempi, eliciting a deserved standing ovation.

The first part of the program was not so fortunate. Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), the son of Swiss parents, has been described as “French by culture and adoption.” He was a member of a group of young rebel composers – the others were Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre – who became known in the 1920s as “Les Nouveaux Jeunes” (loosely translated as the new kids on the block), better known as “Le groupe de Six.” The only idea uniting them was the right to express themselves in their own individual style. But Honegger was a conservative at heart, and his music looks more often to the past than the future. His short Pastorale d’été, composed in 1920, is a pale, monochromatic, monodynamic work that failed to raise any excitement in spite of the best efforts of conductor and orchestra.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is known primarily for his operas and sacred music, but he could not resist the pressure to write two symphonies. The COT performed the Symphony No 2, in E-flat Major, a work that owes a lot to Mendelssohn and Schubert, in harmony, thematic material and – in the case of Schubert – length. Even the polished performance of the orchestra could not raise much interest this work; in particular the second movement, larghetto, quickly overstayed its welcome. Muti, in pre-concert comments from the stage, admitted as much.

Muti should be commended for trying to give his programs a theme. But in presenting a program of French music, he should remember that French music for chamber orchestra extends beyond the Romantic and impressionist periods chronologically in both directions: There is Jean-Philippe Rameau, and even Pierre Boulez….