The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle (COT) began its 2013-14 season at the Carolina Theatre of Durham with a program exemplifying its unique niche in an overcrowded field of great local ensembles. The COT offers, as perhaps no other chamber orchestra does, an informal presentation with verbal program notes presented from the stage by the music director, creative thematic programs containing many underplayed and often unknown works, and very affordable admission prices that have held the line at $20 for as long as I remember. A major reason for this continuing success in all facets of its existence is Lorenzo Muti, Conductor and Artistic Director, who this season celebrates his twenty-fifth year at his post.

The title of this program, “Three From One,” was based on three different versions of two Gymnopédies of the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925). This seemingly-simple concept would seem to be a no-brainer but I have never come across anything like it in any orchestral concert. There are hundreds of original piano works that have been orchestrated, such as Ravel’s masterful adaptation of Mussorgsky’s piano original of Pictures at an Exhibition. Wouldn’t it be cool to hear the piano original followed by the orchestrated version? Finally, here, it was done.

Satie’s Gymnopédies are brief, ethereal piano works in slow waltz tempos that, after languishing for a half century, suddenly hit the right nerve for listeners. These first two are probably the best known, and we first heard each played in its original piano version by Randall Love. This was followed by Claude Debussy’s lovely impressionistic orchestral versions. The second one, especially, was quite magical with Laura Byrne’s evocative harp solos and insistent and punctuated French horn tones played by principal Andrew McAfee. Finally, we heard a version for guitar and flutes that was recorded by Blood, Sweat and Tears; the COT artists were Ed Stephenson, guitar, and Allison Dimsdale and Jill Muti, flutes. Yes, it seemed that Satie’s spacey, almost ambient miniatures became a perfect background while enjoying some herbal refreshment.

It’s quite difficult to find a work that will feature four virtuoso players from the orchestra each playing a nearly equally difficult and interesting part. The solution for this is Joseph Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello. This three-movement work harkens back to a Baroque form, and some similarities exist between it and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Despite Haydn’s longevity and enormous output, except for most notably his two cello concertos and one for trumpet, there is a dearth of works by him for soloist and orchestra. Maybe he was too busy fathering both the symphony and string quartet. In any case, this substantial and charming work is a wonderful vehicle for all four soloists and the orchestra itself.

Lorenzo Muti made light of the fact that he had committed the sin of nepotism by selecting his son, Niccolo Muti, as violinist in addition to the other three, all of whom are principals. He did the family name proud and everyone forgave the elder’s show of power! Bo Newsome, longtime principal oboe, and principal bassoonist Chris Ulffers were masterful in handling the fleet and virtuosic writing. I admit a bias for the instrument, but I was bowled over by the elegant style and unerring facility of Grace Anderson, the new cello principal. The middle Andante movement was especially satisfying as it alternated long solo singing lines with beautifully-sculpted conversations among the four soloists. Before this piece began, Maestro Muti pitched it with high praise and almost a money back guarantee. Everyone bought it with a unanimous vote for Haydn’s hidden gem and the energetic and joyous performance.

Yes, the Haydn was indeed a great composition, but these types of works can often be yawners for the supporting orchestra. It was therefore time finally to feature the full ensemble in all its glory. Again, Muti chooses to use a vehicle that he said is “probably unknown to 99% of the audience.” Jan Václav Voříšek (1791-1825) was a Bohemian composer during whose tragically short life were exhibited great piano works, chamber music, a Mass, and the 1821 Symphony in D, which we heard on this occasion. He was at the cusp of the burgeoning Romantic style, and during his time in Vienna, he befriended all the musical heavyweights, including Beethoven and Schubert. While many point to this symphony – and Voříšek himself—derisively as a “one-hit-wonder,” his remarkable invention and grasp of this style portended a great future cut short by tuberculosis.

Voříšek’s four movement symphony may be standard in form, but its content is a wonderfully unique mix of classical grace and Beethovenian storminess. Muti deftly guided the COT through these diverse trails and brought life to a neglected work.

There have been some changes in the personnel of the COT, particularly a completely new cello section, and the sound has become even more cohesive, confident and able to communicate the broad spectrums of emotion, which is after all what music is all about. This was a great start to what promises to be a fabulous season.

That season continues on November 17. For details, click here.