From promising beginnings as a somewhat fluid chamber ensemble based at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, led by the then-violist of the Ciompi Quartet, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle has matured under 20 years of the often-inspired and always steadfast leadership of Lorenzo Muti. The orchestra’s 25th anniversary season is highlighted by some exceptional guest artists and some stellar programs, and the matinee concert of January 20, presented in the Carolina Theatre, was no exception. The soloist was the splendid American flutist Mimi Stillman, whose return appearance with the COT was eagerly awaited by all those who admire her artistry.

The program itself underwent a wholesale change since the season was announced. In place of music by Griffes, Respighi, and Vivaldi, the bill of fare began with seven short Romanian Folk Dances, transcribed by Bartók for piano in 1915 or so and orchestrated (as Sz.68) two years later. In lieu of printed program notes, Maestro Muti reminded the audience that Bartók and his fellow countryman Kodály were pioneering ethnomusicologists whose field recordings (on cylinders) captured and preserved vast quantities of folk music in Eastern Europe. That both composers recycled some of these tunes in their own works is perfectly understandable; these Romanian Dances are among Bartók’s most straightforward (and effective) adaptations, and the COT played them crisply and incisively.

There was more of the same expert music-making in Haydn’s “Drum Roll” Symphony (No. 103, in E flat), which followed, and Muti made it particularly relevant by revealing that some of its themes are actually Croatian folk tunes. Papa Haydn rarely gets the level of respect his music was accorded on this occasion; this was a performance that had almost everything going for it, from polished unanimity among the string sections to superior woodwind and brass playing, all expertly balanced and graced by some astonishingly adept control of dynamics. Among the many gems the Menuet stood out as a near-perfect example of informed Haydn interpretation.

Stillman ultimately offered Lowell Liebermann’s outstanding Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Op. 39 (1992), a substantial and rewarding score that its fans are increasingly convinced is one of the best such works of the 20th century. Never mind that the opening and closing movements suggest other works, by other, comparably fine composers. The first movement, marked “Moderato,” is as engaging and dramatic as anything in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, portions of which it often evokes; and the finale (“Presto”), with its sometimes raucous brass and percussion, brings Shostakovich at his fiery best to mind. In between comes one of the most sublime slow movements (“Molto adagio”) one can find anywhere – it’s ethereal, serene, and emotionally gripping. Stillman played with breathtaking virtuosity and depth of feeling, and at every step of the way she was brilliantly supported by the orchestra and Muti; the performance, collectively, was one of the finest concerto readings heard hereabouts in many moons, and the audience seemed to know it, for the response was enthusiastic and protracted. (One of the visitor’s most distinguishing characteristics is that, unlike many of her flute-playing colleagues, she stands and delivers, rather than consuming a large portion of the stage with physical motion!) After several solo bows, the flutist sent the crowd away with a reading of the Sarabande from the Partita for Solo Flute (sometimes called a sonata), S.1013.

A post-concert reception permitted the audience to mingle with (some of) the artists.

The COT’s anniversary season continues with guest clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein on March 16.