One of the largest audiences in several seasons was on hand at the opening concert of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, October 21. That was some of the good news–there were more warm bodies scattered throughout Durham’s Carolina Theatre than were on stage to play. Unfortunately, there have been concerts where that was not true. I couldn’t help but muse that there were more people listed as season contributors than there were in the hall. That related to the other good news of the afternoon, announced by Board Chairman David Linquist – $46,000 was raised from the group’s second fund-raising gala, and a further donation of $3,000 toward expenses allowed all of the gala funds to go toward covering 40% of the budget. New donations endowed the Giorgio Ciompi Chair and the endowment of the Robert Ward Chair has been expanded. Again this season, all young students will be admitted free.

Conductor Lorenzo Muti gave brief remarks about each piece of music before it was played. The concert opened with a standard interpretation of Rossini’s Overture L’Italiana in Algieri.The formulaic French overture-slow-fast, featured rich string tone and fine solo work from the clarinet and bassoon and especially oboist Bo Newsome. Some orchestra players on stage were not listed in the program, while others who were listed were not present.

The highlight of the afternoon came with the performance of Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto in D, which Muti described as his favorite of the five or so for the violin. Orchestral phrasing and playing were stylish and the ensemble was well balanced with their fine young soloist Gareth Johnson. The fifteen-year-old young man was a confident soloist who phrased and interpreted beautifully. He was fully engaged with the work and had a fine warm tone and good control of intonation almost without fail. His exposed high notes were precise. The cadenza was a delight. After a warm reception by both audience and orchestra he sealed his welcome with a hit of his own that he composed, he said, “in a moment of inspiration”–a free fantasy on the theme from The Red Violin by John Corigliano. Johnson, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, did not begin to study the violin until he was ten, but in five years he has already compiled an impressive list of awards and prizes. We need more outstanding African American soloists and orchestra players. Gareth Johnson will be a name to watch in the future.

The concert ended with a good standard interpretation of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 56A. The chamber orchestra version gives prominence to the wind band, which is at the heart of the work, and the result was a nice, rustic quality. Tempos were unhurried and unfolded naturally.

It was nice to see a few more young students taking advantage of the generous free admission. More use of such a wonderful opportunity should be made. Perhaps a mentor program or church and community outreach could get more to attend. This is very important if the orchestra’s mission is shifting more toward the basics and education and away from the exploration of unusual and under-performed literature which is so dear to us critics who will never fill a hall. In their St. Stephen’s Church days and in later, in Baldwin Auditorium, attendance was easy. You gave your money to a volunteer and they gave you a cheap ticket and you took your general admission seat. At the Carolina Theatre, seating is still general admission so getting a ticket ought to be a whiz, but it isn’t. The same elaborate Byzantine computer system that is used to secure reserved seating seems also to be used for at-the-door sales. I was among the many grumbling patrons waiting a long time to get a simple ticket Sunday afternoon. If the orchestra ever gets the audience it deserves, it may loose it through needlessly slow box office procedures. The personnel are pleasant but the procedure needs attention where general admission events are involved.