Carolina Performing Arts launched its 2011-12 season with the first of two Memorial Hall concerts by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and UNC pianist Stefan Litwin. The second concert will be presented tonight, September 8.

The hall was substantially full as CPA director Emil Kang came onto the stage to welcome patrons for the start of the series’ seventh season. Long-range planning and – sometimes – herculean travel are often the norm in this business: he’d first heard the ensemble eight years ago, he said; and the Chamber Philharmonic had arrived for these North American concerts – the only two on their itinerary this season – after a 25-hour flight from Chile. If that was an ordeal for any of the artists, it didn’t show in their incisive, animated performances of Haydn’s rarely-heard Symphony No. 49 or Beethoven’s even more rarely-heard Octet for Winds or the Piano Concerto No. 1. (The September 8 program consists of Haydn’s Symphony No. 80, Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night [in its string orchestra incarnation], and Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3.)

The Haydn may have been the evening’s greatest revelation. We hear too little Haydn hereabouts, and when we do, it’s often as a curtain-raiser, as it were, for other, more “serious” fare. There’s often a problem, too, with orchestral performances of Haydn’s music, in that even some of our best stick-wavers don’t seem to “get it” when it comes to this music. These Bremen-based musicians didn’t bring a conductor with them, so there was no one to get in the music’s way. What resulted may have suggested the work of Orpheus, but these visitors could have put the NY-based chamber ensemble in the shade, in terms of incisiveness, and the energy they exuded in their playing was palpable throughout the hall. The two-dozen string players were arrayed in “classic” fashion, with the violins divided, the cellos next to the firsts, f-holes facing the audience, and the violas to their left. This had a perceptible impact on the sound that projected into the hall, giving enhanced clarity and definition, particularly in terms of the lower strings. Also playing were pairs of oboes and horns and a single bassoon. The bracing sound, the high energy levels, and the generally brisk tempi combined to make this performance of this F Minor symphony, “aptly nicknamed,” as note-writer Molly Barnes told us, “La Passione,” a moment in time about which to write home. The crowd responded with heartfelt enthusiasm.

This ensemble is into chamber music, too, and next up was the evening’s great rarity, a performance of Beethoven’s Octet for Winds, Op. 103. This was recast as the first String Quintet, in which form it is somewhat better known. The original version, for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, received a brilliant reading by the highly animated players, interrupted briefly by a problem with a key on one of the oboes. This led to an on-stage comment – “Is there a plumber in the house?” – but didn’t significantly impair the performance or the audience’s appreciation of it.

Part two of the concert began with brief comments from piano soloist Litwin about Beethoven’s Op. 15, actually the second of the keyboard concerti, chronologically, although it was published before the work in B-flat Major we now know as No. 2. The comments and examples helped shed new light on the familiar score, setting up an impression of the Sturm und Drang period that casual listeners might easily have overlooked. The performance itself, which involved additional winds and brass plus timpani (crisply played with hard sticks), was brilliant and enlightening. In the opening and closing movements, the tempi were fast – often very fast – but the orchestral articulation remained consistently impressive, and the energy levels, even in soft passages, were, quite frankly, amazing. Although Litwin played from a score, there were some minor coordination glitches along the way, issues that would surely have been corrected were there a second performance. He of course “conducted” this from the keyboard – the notion of a conductor-less ensemble seems liberating for instrumentalists, but there is always a leader, even if leadership shifts around (as it routinely does in chamber configurations).

Incidentally, Litwin delivered Beethoven’s own cadenzas, providing a rare musicological treat. The long cadenza that comes at the end of the first movement is almost never heard in full, with its expansive meanderings that so much suggest the philosophical Beethoven of the later years, so it was an extraordinary treat to experience it here, and in such a dazzling rendition.

This is a youthful orchestra – its history is summarized here – so it’s not surprising that some members of the audience wondered about the ensemble, perhaps recalling the Brothers Grimm tale of the (animal) Musicians of the Town of Bremen. Make no mistake – this is an ensemble that merits the attention of even the most discriminating connoisseur of the art of orchestral (and chamber) performance!

The visitors play again tonight (September 8), and tickets are still available. There’s competition in the Triangle in the form of performances of Mozart (anticipating the 9/11 anniversary) and by the Harlem Quartet, but repeats of both of those later in the weekend mean that music lovers can and should take in the Bremen repeat. For details, see the sidebar.

P.S. Incidentally, parking on the campus seemed far less painful than in recent years – there were plenty of places within easy walking distance. Yes, it’s early in the term, but this is a very good sign as the season gets underway.