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Music Director Harry Davidson has an enviable reputation for imaginative menus for his Duke Symphony Orchestra concerts. Such was the case for this program commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), seminal developer of the symphony and the string quartet as musical forms. Except for the opening work, the stage of Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University's East Campus was packed with musicians. In enthusiasm and number, if not quite technical facility, Davidson's forces were as large as the New York Philharmonic which was visiting rival University of North Carolina for two concerts in Chapel Hill.
Davidson reduced his forces considerably for the opening work, Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor, "Farewell" (1772). This tempestuous work stems from Haydn's "Sturm und Drang" (Storm and Stress) period and seethes with complex rhythms and tempos in juxtaposition to unexpected emphasis upon certain notes. Popular legend has it that the final "Adagio," with players leaving the stage during the performance, was composed as a hint for the composer's patron Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy to return from his summer place to Vienna where the musicians could rejoin their families. Haydn has the power to communicate across the centuries. During the communist era in Romania, a political committee refused to allow conductor Sergiu Comissiona to program the Farewell Symphony because it might incite strikes in the workers' paradise!
Although there were some rough patches of ensemble and a few shaky instrumental solos, Davidson's strings played with good ensemble and tone with clear detailing of the musical lines. An occasional flub aside, the horns were robust and confident throughout with a very fine duet in the third movement. Woodwinds were strongly characterized. Just before the added "Adagio" in the last movement, Co-concertmistress Suxiao Yang's solo revealed a fine warm tone and excellent intonation.
Haydn's Farewell Symphony was an ideal selection on a program featuring the revised piano concerto of Anthony Maurice Kelley (b. 1965) which quotes portions of the work. Kelley has long been an active and familiar fixture in the Triangle's musical life. He received both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Duke University. He earned his Ph. D. in musical composition from the University of California at Berkley. Also a talented pianist, Kelley has been Associate Professor of the Practice of Music at Duke since 2000. His Africamerica: Sound Images for Piano and Orchestra was premiered in 1999 by the Richmond Symphony while Kelley was serving as Composer-in Residence. This local performance featured his 2009 revision which has some added orchestral parts. According to Kelley's program notes his intention was to "create a musical impression of the earliest practices surrounding African slave trade by European and early American settlers."
Davidson led his players in an alert and carefully balanced accompaniment. Kelley's score features episodes of improvisation by the soloist requiring alert and flexible orchestral response. Kelley played with great skill whether conjuring a winning repeated tune in the high treble or evoking Jazz Age sounds. Lyrical, Romantic string melodies are set against driving rhythms in brass and percussion. This performance whetted the appetite for more.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was a musical prodigy, originally hailed as the next Mozart, whose reputation was tarnished when he became a successful film composer in Hollywood in the '30s. Critics in the thrall of atonality found his music too lavish and luscious. His Concerto in D, Op. 35 (1945) for violin was dedicated to the wife of Gustav Mahler, Alma Mahler-Werfel, and was premiered and recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Its three movements are played without pause. Its accompaniment is lyrical and lush and the solo part is as demanding as it is attractive. Co-concertmaster Richard Zhu, winner of the 2008-09 student concerto competition, turned in an assured and confident performance with a full, rich tone and impeccable intonation. His playing would have been impressive for a conservatory major, and even more so for a Biology major with a minor in Music who will start medical school in Fall 2009.
Davidson led his full forces with great style and vigor in Haydn's Symphony No. 104 in D, "London" (1895), the composer's last work and arguably his greatest effort in the form. It was played with much more polish than the Farewell Symphony and with much more confident and consistent ensemble and intonation. His enthusiastic players did the composer proud. Bravo!