“The Magic of the Flute” was the hook for the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle‘s concert in Durham’s Carolina Theatre. The main program was led by music director Lorenzo Muti. The featured soloist was flutist Mimi Stillman making her fifth appearance with the ensemble since she debuted as an 18 year-old winner of the 1999 Young Concert Artists International Auditions.

The opening work, the deeply expressive Intermezzo from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), was conducted by the COT Gala Auction Winner Dr. Shaun Matthews. His graceful gestures had been coached by principal horn Andrew McAfee. The musicians held together and brought out all the romantic passion in the famous excerpt.

Muti took the podium for a fine, very dramatic reading of the overture from Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). Ensemble was precise with their pacing and phrasing very effective. The intensity of the playing made me regret that the curtain would not be going up on the opera itself. The only unexpected thing was a sudden sound like a cannon shot during the slow buildup probably due to a stage light or an open mike.

There was nothing ho-hum about the “repurposed” concerto which came next. Mozart’s mixed feelings about the flute is well known. The composer once received a commission from Dutch amateur flutist Ferdinand De Jean. He eventually delivered two flute concertos and three flute quartets. However, since he was so slow in delivery, De Jean only paid him half of the commission.

The Flute Concerto No. 2 in D, K. 314, selected by Stillman to play, was a reworking of an Oboe Concerto in C, K. 314, that Mozart had composed in 1777. It is in three movements: an Allegro aperto bursting with perky rhythms and high spirits, a songful Andante ma non troppo, and a light and lively rondo finale Allegro. Muti directed a superbly balanced and stylish accompaniment. Stillman focused most of her movements on delivering flawless playing. She played with great elegance, superb intonation, and marvelous breath control. Her runs were brilliant, and there were trills and thrills aplenty!

The world premiere of “Viaje” for flute and strings by Zhou Tian (b. 1981) came after intermission. Stillman prefaced her performance with the work’s history. It began as a commission by Dolce Suono Ensemble for Stillman and the Dover Quartet. There followed a trio version and then finally, this debut performance of Zhou’s repurposing of the piece for flute and string orchestra. Stillman explained “Viaje” means “Voyage” and the work is a dramatic depiction of the legendary El Cid. The Castillian nobleman and military leader, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (c. 1043-99) was called El Cid (The Lord) by the Moors. Stillman said “Viaje” is filled with emotions and drama. She said an extended duet between flute and cello depicted a conversation between El Cid and his daughter.

Muti led a fiery performance. The dramatic opening surged with strong rhythms and featured fast, racing runs for the flute. The clarity and focus of Stillman’s soaring highs was delightful. There were several fine duets between Stillman and principal cellist Roman Placzek along with forays by concertmaster Tasi Matthews. “Viaje” was engaging enough to make one hope for future repeats as well as other Zhou pieces.

Stillman’s encore was a marvelous performance of Syrinx L. 129 for solo flute by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Stillman’s adventuresome choice of repertoire will always be welcome.

Muti’s vivid direction of the Czech Suite, Op. 39 by Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) ended the concert, leaving music lovers in a good mood. It consists of five movements: a pastoral Preludium, Polka, a swaying Menuetto (based on the Bohemian Sousedská), Roamanze, and the increasingly lively Furiant finale with constantly shifting accents and a fast, intense finish. Every section got a chance to shine in turn.