One of the largest audiences that I have seen at any Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle concert in recent years filled a good part of Durham’s Carolina Theatre on the afternoon of January 13. Some of the increase was certainly due to the involvement of the Concert Singers of Cary. It was nonetheless a remarkable turnout on a concert-filled day that had cvnc reviewers covering four events in Raleigh and Durham.

Conductor Lorenzo Muti selected three choice rarities. It is a reflection upon shameful local programming that after some thirty years of concert-going I can still label the performance of a concerto or symphony by either Haydn or Mozart a rare event. For once, the program contained brief unsigned notes. Muti added some background comments from the stage.

One of Franz Joseph Haydn’s named symphonies (No. 49 in F Minor, ” La passione”) opened the program. The moody piece was composed during his “Sturm und Drang” period which brought a new emphasis on the musical portrayal of human emotions. A long, slow Adagio opened the work, and its performance showed great care in string articulation, phrasing and sensitive use of dynamics. Woodwinds were excellent and, after a slightly tentative start, the horns settled down. Often the bassoon part was paired closely with the double bass. The next movement’s very fast tempo provided splendid contrast and displayed elaborate writing for both woodwinds and horns. The oboes, led by Bo Newsome, were a delight in the trio of the Menuet. Thoughtful phrasing helped bring out details in the vigorous Presto that brought the symphony to a rousing end.

The well-drilled Concert Singers of Cary joined an unusual reduced orchestra for the second item, Ottorino Respighi’s Christmas cantata, Lauda per la Natività del Signore. Muti said he had never even heard the work on the radio and had discovered this gorgeous piece as part of an Italian CD he bought on a recent return to his birthplace. My own search turned it up most often as part of repertory lists for several European choirs and soloists. The program describes it as “a large Christmas cantata… exemplify(ing) Respighi’s fascination with Medieval times” and notes that “Its text (in Old Italian) is a very original version of the 13th century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi.” The much reduced orchestra consisted of oboe, English horn, two flutes with one doubling on the piccolo, two bassoons and a piano played four hands. Catherine Charlton had a clear, firmly-supported high soprano voice in the role of the Angel. Timothy Sparks brought warmth to the brief tenor role of the Shepherd. Stephanie Dillard was excellent in the extensive mezzo-soprano role of Mary. The well-balanced choir sang the roles of both Angels and Shepherds. Gregorian Chant had extensive influence in Respighi’s scoring. The diction and projection of the choir was very good. Despite full texts, the hall lights were too dim to allow anyone to follow. Memorable was an extended humming vocalise by the chorus, underpinning Sparks’ Shepherd episode. Oboist Newsome was first among equals with many beautifully played solos. Carrie Shull played a gorgeous English horn solo during mezzo-soprano Dillard’s first solo. The most complex part was during the chorus’ “Laude, gloria…” where the rhythm of the poetic text was most striking. At one point, with full chorus and ensemble including the piano four-hands, only the piccolo played by Jill Muti cut through the texture completely. Because of its unusual but small instrumental ensemble, this would be an ideal work for Christmas programs by well-drilled college-and-community or church choirs and would be a welcome relief from abridged Messiahs. Since it hasn’t been recorded often, it would be a good selection for a promotional recording. The unlisted piano players were Vicki Oehling and Linda Velto.

After intermission, rising young Italian pianist Laura Magnani joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453, one of his most attractive middle concertos. The pianist’s playing was elegant and unsentimental. The first movement featured a lively dialogue with the woodwinds. Magnani played the jewel-like Andante with eloquent simplicity. The mellow oboe was joined by the flute, and there was lovely playing from the bassoon and horns. The concluding light-hearted set of variations, heard first in the theme played by flute and violin, was enchanting. Magnani offered sensitive playing very much as a chamber musician. The opera-buffa-like ending brought much of the audience to its feet for prolonged applause. As an encore, Magnani gave a deeply felt performance of Chopin’s Andante spianato without its Grand Polonaise. I sense that she is more at ease in the Romantic repertoire and look forward to hearing more from her in the future.