The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle‘s latest program, titled “20th Century Luminaries,” displayed the works of three very different yet contemporary composers: Schoenberg, Corigliano, and Copland. Obviously, the two bookends of this program are the most shockingly contrasting, but Lorenzo Muti, Conductor and Artistic Director, pointed out that the two were living and writing in the U.S. at the same time. Some of Copland’s works even incorporate the serialism pioneered by Schoenberg, albeit in a more tonal way. Corigliano’s presence on the program was a lush respite between the two, completing an imaginative program.

To begin, it is worth mentioning that Muti himself introduced Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38 as the most difficult and technically challenging piece that COT has ever played. Even to a first-time listener, it is clear that this music, with its lack of guiding tonality, unpredictability, and virtuosic challenges, is no easy feat. Perhaps what stood out the most in this performance was the musicians’ capacity for listening to one another. This is important in any performance, but especially necessary when imitative passages occur, requiring the player to exactly match articulation and tone even across instrument families. With the first movement, Adagio, COT gave the impression that not only every phrase but every pitch was carefully shaped. In addition, the impact of unified articulation, even with a dense tonal texture, was arresting.

The rolling second movement, Con fuoco – Lento, is somewhat a reprieve from the heaviness of the Adagio, yet it is also more punctuated and biting. The virtuosic phrases in woodwinds and brass were memorable here as well. As promised, the movement returned to an ominous, halting Lento, ending with a spiteful-sounding final chord that leaves the listener either in awe or confused. The COT’s performance certainly earned the former reaction.

Corigliano’s Voyage (for string orchestra), the most contemporary work on the program, is inspired by Baudelaire poetry that includes the words, “richness, quietness, and pleasure,” which could possibly summarize this short work. This performance was conducted with sweeping gestures by the COT’s violinist Niccolo Muti that matched the wide harmonies and painting-like melodic lines in the music.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring needs no introduction, but perhaps the Suite for 13 instruments (here played with 15) is lesser known. While this arrangement forgoes the breathtaking intensity of a full symphony orchestra, it shines with clarity and melodic directness. With just 15 instruments, no color in the instrumentation was lost. The sensitivity of the COT definitely showed the advantage of a smaller ensemble, especially in the dawn-like beginning where instruments enter one by one to build a kaleidoscopic chord. The quickly changing moods and textures of this suite are unpredictable, and familiar melodies are brought new life with syncopated accents and driving hemiolas. The calm denouement of this suite and the concert was at first meditative and quietly hopeful, until Muti rewound back to the boisterous “Simple Gifts” section for an audience-pleasing encore.