The restored Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University's East Campus was opened last fall with a special gala concert. Interim Music Department Chair Jonathan Bagg introduced this latest gala concert with the hope it would become an annual event. There was a good turnout of music lovers on hand to hear a pair of rarely-performed neo-classical works from the late 1930s followed by a quirky piano concerto from the early maturity of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (175-91).
This special chamber orchestra was anchored by the members of the Ciompi Quartet joined by other faculty members and some of the area's finest free-lancers. This was leavened by the addition of some of these artists' finest students to help fill out the ensemble for the Mozart. Conducting duties were shared by Duke Symphony Orchestra music director Harry Davidson for the Mozart and Duke University Wind Symphony conductor Verena Mösenbichler for the other works. The superb soloist for the Mozart was Swiss pianist Olivier Cavé.
The Concerto in E Flat (1938), subtitled Dumbarton Oaks, is one of the neo-classical works of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The last work he completed in Europe, it was commissioned by Robert Woods and Mildred Bliss in Washington, DC, for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. It is named for the commissioners' estate. The concerto is scored for flute, B-flat clarinet, bassoon, two horns, three violins, three violas, two cellos, and two double basses. Like the Bartók work which followed it on the program, this neo-classical piece is a modernist take on the baroque concerto grosso in which a smaller group of musicians (the concertino) is set against the full ensemble (ripieno).
Mösenbichler led an alert and vivid performance with Stravinsky's driving rhythms well brought out. The delicious contrasts between the pungent winds and the agile strings were a constant delight. The pairing of Rachel Niketopoulos and Chris Caudill on horns, the clarinet of Jimmy Gilmore, and the bassoon of Rachel Elliot in the first movement were memorable. Highlights of the second movement were the pairing of the violas, led by Jonathan Bagg, and Elliot's bassoon, the high piping of Rebecca Troxler's flute, and some delightful low notes from Gilmore's clarinet. Fine string playing was among the many charms of the finale, with an exotic phrase taken up by violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku before being passed on to the lower strings.
The Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz.113, BB.118, by Bela Bartók (1881-1949) is a three-movement work for orchestral strings composed in 1939 on a commission from conductor Paul Sacher for his Basler Kammerorchester. The constant interplay among different small groups, contrasted against the full ensemble, is richly satisfying. The wonderful Hungarian flavor comes from the composer's mastery of musical elements utilized within the vast folk music collection he had amassed, but his own personal style is free from the constraints of direct quotation.
Mösenbichler brought out the rich and vivid colors and textures of Bartók's wonderful score. The rhythms were precise, as was the intonation. Prominent string solos were given by the members of the Ciompi Quartet – violinists Pritchard and Ku, violist Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi – and new double bass faculty member Michael Ashton.
The Piano Concerto No. 13 in C, K. 415, is the third of three full concertos Mozart composed for his subscription concerts in Vienna in 1782-83. This period marks the transition from composers being dependent upon patronage of the nobility to a livelihood derived from giving concerts to a public made up of the rising middleclass. The set of three concertos was also arranged for quartet accompaniment to sell more scores. It is scored for piano, strings, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and timpani. Wikipedia briefly describes the three movements of No. 13 as "Allegro in C and in common time," "Andante in F and in ¾ time," and "Allegro in C and in 6/8 time." While major scholars complain that Mozart fails to follow through with the promise of the beginnings of the first two movements and a number of ideas are never exploited, all consider the finale among the composer's best.
Davidson led a beautiful and stylish performance with an excellent balance between the orchestra and the keyboard. The military quality of the opening, with its march rhythm and the martial air from the added brass and percussion, were well brought out. Olivier Cavé's playing was breathtaking, with articulation of great clarity and a marvelous tone. Highlights were the cadenzas in the first two movements and the wonderful C Minor episodes for piano in the finale. Enthusiastic audience response was rewarded with an unannounced solo sonata by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757).