The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle‘s final concert of the season, titled “Music and the Bizarre,” featured a variety of music: some fantasy, some more down-to-earth, and some in between. Interestingly, the performance of the music of Peer Gynt featured all of these elements. There was never a dull moment in the concert. Several guest artists and ensembles contributed to this.

The concert began with guest Michael Malone‘s debut as a conductor, leading the orchestra (with some assistance by Maestro Muti) in the sweeping Overture to South Pacific. Malone is a well-known North Carolinian author and Professor of English who currently teaches at Duke. He took the stage and conducted with aplomb, his body language and gestures clearly matching the many changing textures of the overture. Malone easily communicated both the military marching of some sections as well as the sweeping strings in waltz tempo.

Next, the orchestra played another favorite – Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” from his opera La Gioconda. This particular piece is clearly programmatic, as clear sections tend to imply the shifting moods from morning to night. This is also aided by the piece’s portrayal in Disney’s Fantasia from 1940. Whether or not audience members had that particular imagery in mind (the image of dancing hippopotami), the COT’s performance of “Dance of the Hours” surely sparked their imaginations with its vividness.

The concert continued with a very informative presentation and performance by select members of the Durham Kidznotes program and their teachers. Kidznotes is a nonprofit organization that provides free orchestra instruction for underprivileged students grades K-7. It is modeled after the worldwide El Sistema program that began in Venezuela several decades ago. Katie Wyatt, executive director of Kidznotes, plays viola for the COT. Out of the approximately 300 students in Kidznotes, five of the most promising and five of their teachers formed a small chamber ensemble, with Rashad Hayward conducting. They performed three chamber works by Bach and Handel, all examples of pieces with challenging polyphony for such young students. However, the ensemble stayed together quite well, led by Hayward’s graceful conducting. Kidznotes concluded their set with a quick but fun piece by Thom Sharp, “Salsa Verde,” in which the audience clapped along with the catchy syncopated rhythms.

The highlight and centerpiece of this concert was the performance of Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Ibsen‘s famous play Peer Gynt. Of course, the play was not staged at this performance, but David Hammond‘s narration selected essential parts of the play’s text to recount the story told by the music. Along with the COT as well were the Concert Singers of Cary, soprano soloist Susannah Rhodes Stewart (a senior at Carrboro High School), and a female trio (Kathryn Mueller, Molly Quinn, and Meredith Canington). All of these guests supplemented the orchestra’s music by portraying specific characters of the play.

From the opening of the Prelude to Act I, the capricious and abrupt style of the music becomes apparent. Often, one instrument cuts through the full texture of the orchestra and then is heard as a solo. In the beginning, the melodies of these solos are reminiscent of folk-like melodies. The first act is full of imagery, with a sweeping texture and lyrical melodies portraying the romanticism of Ingrid’s wedding as well as Peer Gynt’s optimisn. Abrupt orchestral changes and a mournful melody depict the moment when Peer Gynt attempts to kidnap Ingrid and becomes an outlaw.

The trio of singers appears in Act II, portraying three goat-girls that speak of the mountain trolls to Peer Gynt. In this performance, they sang down to Hammond from the boxes flanking the stage. Also in Act II, the Concert Singers of Cary became a chorus of trolls, accompanying the very famous melody of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Although originally written in Norwegian, all the text was sung in English. This scene probably occurs in Peer Gynt’s imagination, blending the elements of realism and surrealism in the story. The theme began slowly, with a solo bassoon beneath Hammond’s declamation that “nothing is as it seems.” The tempo increased with the entrance of the chorus, singing “slay him!” To depict Peer Gynt’s travels to exotic Arabia, soloist Susannah Rhodes Stewart sang the rising and falling melody of the “Arabian Dance,” accompanied by the women of the chorus. She also sang the beautiful and romantic melodies of Solvejg’s songs in both Acts IV and V, displaying a clear tone that shone through the orchestra’s texture.

Throughout the performance, Hammond expertly communicated the ever-changing mood and outlook of Peer Gynt, ranging from positivity to drunkenness to nihilistic philosophies such as “life is a joke.” Overall, the play depicts Peer Gynt’s quest to “find himself.” At the end, when he feels like he has lost himself, he asks for solace from both his deceased mother and Solvejg. It is unclear exactly what happens to Peer Gynt at the end, but the music ends with an ethereal texture, with harp arpeggios that suggest some kind of peaceful dream state.