This past Friday night, the North Carolina Chamber Orchestra retook the stage for the first time in over two years. The regional ensemble presented a program of intimate works for chamber orchestra at the Virginia Somerville Sutton Theatre in the Well-Spring living community. Conducted by music director Paul Manz, the ensemble featured their principal violist, Simon Ertz, at the end of the first half.

The program began with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, an approximately fifteen-minute work that shifts between pensive and pastoral through Vaughan Williams’ English compositional style; the ensemble navigated these character shifts with care and communication across the stage. The low strings began the piece with a beautiful and rich timbre that spread out between sections as the music developed. The violins executed sensitivity with balance between melody and harmony, and the singular harp added a sparkling quality that perfectly rounded out the soundscape. The back stands of each section were also on risers for the entirety of the concert, and I thought this adjusted staging highly benefited the intimate nature of a chamber orchestra.

The next work on the program was Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, a popular stand-alone amongst orchestral programming. Before each piece, Manz would address the audience to introduce the music; before the Adagietto he said, “I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces ever written; I hope you do, too.” The simple act of sharing music was the theme of the evening, and that parting statement left me slightly verklempt. The orchestra played the movement with such care and passion; each section displayed emotional and technical commitment. The pacing and passing of phrases around the ensemble was nicely done and aided Mahler’s style; there were several schmaltzy glissandi and tempi rubato that made me smile. Despite the ensemble’s reduced size, the depth of sound produced was impressive, as was the drastic dynamic difference created in softer moments – the ensemble ended the last note like a whisper, and for a second, no one dared breathe.

Juxtaposing the romantic expressiveness of Mahler was George Philipp Telemann’s Concerto for Viola in G, featuring principal violist Ertz. Also, a member of several ensembles in the Triad, Ertz demonstrated effortless stage presence and a wonderful exhibition of Baroque musicality. The ensemble was slightly reduced, with only two celli instead of four, but a digital harpsichord added depth to the continuo line. The four-movement work alternates tempi with Largo, Allegro, Andante, and Presto, and the orchestra showed great care when following both the conductor and the soloist’s tempi. Ertz was able to be expressive during solo lines, while also blending when necessary during tutti passages. The ensemble executed articulations and period-stylings well, and I have to commend Ertz on his wonderfully open tone and seemingly effortless left-hand dexterity. After the Presto ended, the audience lauded Ertz while a representative from the organization ran up with a bouquet of smiley face balloons.

After a brief intermission, the ensemble returned for John Williams’ “A Prayer for Peace” from the Spielberg film Munich. This brief work displayed Williams’s signature cinematic sound, and the orchestra brought out the solemnity of the piece with emphasis on dissonances and thoughtful balance between inner voices. The concertmaster and principal cello had a lovely duet and highlighted the melancholic nature of the work through their sensitive phrasing and vibrato.

Before retaking the podium, Manz thanked the venue, staff, and introduced the final piece of the evening. Josef Suk was a student of Czech composer Antonin Dvořák and was told by his teacher to “write something happy;” his Serenade for Strings in E-flat is the result of that assignment. The four-movement piece is, simply put, cute. The melodies bounce across the ensemble like Golden Age Disney illustrations and allow for the orchestra to have fun together. The ensemble executed spiccato bow strokes and high melodic lines cleanly in the first movement and navigated the episodic nature of the second movement with attention to character and musicality. The third movement was calm and ethereal, and the gentleness with which the ensemble floated reminded me of moonlight reflecting off a garden pond. The finale’s lively moving notes and flourishes contrasted stately melodies, and both elements of the movement were executed admirably by the ensemble. The movement ended in a frenzy of arpeggiation, and the final chord rang out into the room to greet audience applause.

The North Carolina Chamber Orchestra provided a lovely evening of both delicate and robust chamber music, and I look forward to seeing what the ensemble will continue to do as they return to performing.