The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle is in the middle of its 15th concert season (reorganized from the St. Stephen’s Orchestra in 1988). For all of those seasons, conductor and artistic director Lorenzo Muti has guided and honed COT into a front-rank ensemble. No better proof of this could be offered than the concert presented on Sunday, January 19, 2003, in Durham’s Carolina Theatre.

One of COT’s missions is to bring rarely performed works before the public. For this concert, Muti provided the U.S. premiere of two short works from the prolific but little-known Italian composer, Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973). Malipiero was intrigued by earlier Italian composers, especially Monteverdi and Vivaldi, editing and preparing numerous editions of their works. Under their influence, he often wrote in a neo-classical style, while pursuing his particular “free association” approach to form.

Ricercari , composed in 1925, is a ten-minute piece for violas, doublebass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. It wavers between short stretches of sweet melody and burbling rhythms and dark, ominous rumblings, sometimes verging on the mechanical. The work’s title, often used in Baroque keyboard pieces, means “to look for” and here seems to indicate a search for meaning in a post-war era. Ricercari shows clear influences of Stravinsky but without his ability to weave all the sections into a single whole.

The piece changes suddenly in tempo and mood, asking the players to deal with tricky entrances and rhythms. It was a credit both to them and to Muti that they played it so confidently. It was a joy to watch the musicians’ expressions and head movements as they gleefully attacked the difficult passages.

More impressive was the other Malipiero piece, Ritrovari (“to find something”), written a year later for the same orchestration. Malipiero had asked a poet/patron what he thought of the earlier Ricercari and was answered, “next time try something more upbeat and glorious.” Ritrovari does have several bright sections of vaguely military pomp but it also has a moving funeral dirge and a cold industrial throb that seems to presage coming world conflicts. This piece has more form, even with similar abrupt changes, holding the attention more readily. Once again the music held no qualms for the players, Muti directing them with great precision and feeling. If both of these are not great works, they were still worth hearing. Kudos to Muti for presenting such unusual fare so knowledgeably.

Although this concert had no particular theme, the choice of the other works in it was guided by the forces required for the Malipiero pieces. Muti looked for music which did not require violins plus an emphasis on woodwinds and came up with serenades by Brahms and Dvorak.

Brahms’s Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16, luckily does not require violins and thus made a delightful contribution to the program. Frankly, when the mellow strains of the first measures rolled out, my eyes welled up from the sheer joy of hearing this music played with such warmth and emotion. Throughout, Bo Newsome gave wonderful character and depth to the featured oboe lines. Occasionally, the four violas seemed overpowered, making one wish for at least two more instruments.

Muti brought out all the subtle dynamic shifts while maintaining beautiful clarity and crisp tempos. Only in the gentle adagio movement did the pace lose some needed momentum. The bucolic nature of the piece, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Sixth, was lovingly conveyed, especially the exuberant finale with its perky piccolo and distant hunting horn calls.

Following the other Malipiero selection on the second half, came another endearing work, Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds in d minor, Op. 44. Scored for three horns, two each of clarinets, bassoons and oboes, plus a cello and doublebass, this is a fiendishly difficult work, spotlighting various instruments in solos and harmonic dialogs. (Muti told the audience that after playing it, the musicians would just be able to eat at the reception but not kiss!) All the players took such challenges in full stride under Muti’s perfectly balanced tempos. I found his interpretation more striking and vivid than several highly praised recorded versions. This was transporting music-making.

The Triangle’s appreciation and devotion to this ensemble was evident at this concert, not only from the unusually full auditorium but from the several announced grants and chair endowments. This is indeed an organization worth supporting for the on-going pleasures it supplies at such a consistently high level.