Amid dark skies and thundering storms, Raleigh Symphony Orchestra gave an outstanding performance of a collection of chamber music by Italian composers, which transported patrons to the sunny streets of Florence and the rolling hills of Tuscany. Meredith College hosted the RSO’s season-opening program, Italian String Favorites with Ed Stephenson, inside the historic Jones Chapel. Completed in 1982, the chapel is now a simple and traditional sanctuary, seating about 400 people, complete with wooden pews and a large pipe organ. Even though the capacity was not full, each musician filled every inch of the space with their unique instruments and personalities, leaving patrons eager for encore after encore.

Walking into the performance, I was equally surprised by and grateful for the choice of setting. I had only ever heard symphonic performances in a very large venue, such as the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts, accompanied by dancing or other live visuals. Often, the beautiful melodies from the violins and cellos are not as deeply appreciated due to such large, crowded settings, thus I was restless waiting for the intimate performance to begin, eager to be seated in the second pew.

Despite my apprehensions of the new experience, music director and conductor Dr. Jim Waddelow (also an associate professor of music at Meredith College) crafted an intimate setting, giving the feeling of being right at home in my living room. Seated next to my mother, I couldn’t be more at ease. Fellow Triangle patrons were spread around the chapel, some on the lower level right up front, and others on the second level, wanting to hear and see the musicians with a more well-rounded view. All ages were present, from toddlers and teenagers to seniors and their adult children.

The hour-long program welcomed the sounds of classical strings (violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, and harpsichord) in the sounds of classical Italian composers (Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Corelli, Torelli, Sammartini, and Albinoni). Guest artist Ed Stephenson, known for his work as a flamenco-fusion guitarist, joined the RSO musicians for the performance. Naturally, Vivaldi was an immediate crowd-pleaser with pieces such as Concerto in D, RV 93 and Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepulcro,” RV 169. Other surprising standouts included Sammartini’s Sinfonia in G, with special appreciation for II. Grave. Waddelow brought the audience together a few times when he turned around to face everyone and talk, explaining the decisions behind incorporating different sounds and composers into the program. “We like things that come in small sizes too,” he said when referring to less-popular Italian composers as opposed to the famous work of Vivaldi. It was clear he had a close-knit connection with each and every musician in the orchestra, and the audience was there to simply sit back and enjoy the magic happening in the room.

The evening was entirely cheery and positive, with only one moment of melancholy, during Sammartini’s Sinfonia. One of the most exciting moments of the evening was the addition of soloist Stephenson on the guitar and Gina Pendergrass on the harpsichord. The first stringed note brought the audience straight to the vibrant streets of Florence. When I closed my eyes, I was skipping through the Italian streets, stopping to listen to street performers with a small cone of lemon gelato in my hands. Stephenson’s clear flamenco-style influence and Pendergrass’ graceful keystrokes contained in the third set (Concerto in D , RV 93 [Vivaldi]) and the last set were seamlessly integrated with the more traditional style strings found in the other pieces. These two sounds are inherently different, yet they all intertwined together for a beautiful production.

Despite a few technical hiccups from the guitar’s speaker, the evening was charmingly magical. Classical instruments coupled with an intimate setting carried the show to great success and made the audience soak up the Italian sunshine, forgetting about the storm outside.