Anniversaries serve as gigantic programming “hooks” for arts presenters, and one of the year’s larger such events was the 200th anniversary (on February 3) of the birth of composer Felix Mendelssohn. It has provided many opportunities to revisit his music, but few have been more important, regionally, than the Duke Symphony Orchestra’s final offering of the 2008-9 season, which brought to Baldwin Auditorium performances of the master’s Overture (Op. 21) and complete Incidental Music (Op. 61) for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set – as is rarely the case – within the context of substantial excerpts from the (English version) of the play. It helps that Duke University’s considerable artistic resources include R. Larry Todd, one of the world’s top Mendelssohn scholars; actor and director Jay O’Berski, whose theatrical work encompasses student and community organizations; and Shakespeare scholar Daryl L. Palmer, who collaborated in the preparation of the version of the play that was used on this occasion.

Mendelssohn’s output was vast, ranging from volumes of solo piano music to songs to chamber scores to orchestral works to more pieces for the stage than many music lovers may realize – these include operas, oratorios (think St. Paul and Elijah), and incidental music for half a dozen plays – by Calderón, Hugo, Sophocles, Racine, and of course Shakespeare, whose Ein Sommernachtstraum (in Schlegel’s translation) inspired some of the composer’s most astonishing and effective music. It’s astounding that a 17-year-old boy could have produced (in 1826) an Overture as magical and inventive as this one – and that the man could then have returned to the subject 16 years later to complete the set of incidental music that Todd’s splendid program note tells us was premiered in 1843 upon the occasion of King Frederick William IV’s birthday.

The MSND of course involves a play within a play, a conceit to which Richard Strauss turned in Ariadne auf Naxos. The play is perhaps too well known to recount here; readers may look it up, in various editions, online (one of which is at At Duke, the play was performed by members of The Antic Shakespeare Company. The fairies were Dana Marks (Fairy), Danya Taymor (Puck), Ellary Porterfield (Titania), and Lucius Robinson (magnificent in voice and stage presence as Oberon). The lovers were Victoria Bender (Hermia), Owen Williams (Lysander), Carolyn McDaniel (Helena), and Will Sutherland (Demetrius). The “mechanicals,” who introduced earthy mirth in copious quantities, were Vinny Rey (Bottom), Kinney Rucker (Flute), Vince Oghobaase (Snout), Amaris Whitaker (Snug), David Rothschild (Starveling), and Michael Bergen (an eloquent Quince). The Changeling Boy, who on several occasions came close to stealing the show, was Avery Davidson, child of the evening’s conductor, who has grown up within earshot of the Duke Symphony Orchestra, making him a virtual “son of the regiment” (to use a perhaps obtuse allusion to Marie, in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment).

Up in the balcony (because between the orchestra and the strip of land across the lip of the stage used for the action there was no room in the proverbial inn for the vocalists) were Cleveland-based soprano Jung Oh, mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz (who sang Hansel in last year’s Duke SO performance of the Humperdinck opera), and 34 voices from the Durham Children’s Choir, directed by Scott Hill. Chances are the kids are not all angels, all the time, but they made a grand impression as the chorus in the two sung numbers of this score.

On stage was the Duke Symphony Orchestra, with around 80 members. Presiding over the entire affair was Harry Davidson, whose work at Duke has restored the (mostly student) orchestra to artistic viability in the community and beyond. There was, during this performance, some very, very fine playing. There were, alas, also some places where that was not the case, but one must make certain allowances, given the magnitude of the undertaking – the performance lasted till 10:30 p.m. – and the quite phenomenal difficulty of the music, portions of which often serve as virtuoso demonstrations of crack orchestras’ technical prowess.

The main (musical) parts consist of that aforementioned Overture, a dazzling Scherzo, a Song with Chorus (“You spotted snakes”), an Intermezzo, the celebrated Nocturne, the ubiquitous Wedding March, and the Finale. Along the way, in this rendition, we heard music virtually never excerpted for concert use – because much of it is too brief to stand alone, away from the words it accompanies and amplifies. It was the performance of all this extra music, given in the context of the play, that made this concert so extraordinary – and one of the most extraordinary things about hearing all the music was the unity that the recurring themes from the Overture provided throughout the evening, even in some of the tiniest little fragments of music (some of which were no more than a few measures at a time).

There were some other problems. The orchestral playing sometimes lacked subtlety, in terms of dynamics and dynamic contrasts – passages that would have been literally breathtaking at lower volume levels instead seemed somewhat ordinary, particularly in the more familiar sections. Most of the actors would have benefitted from a bit of supportive amplification, for lots of the words were unclear to this listener. Finally, the lighting – four footlights – did not flatter the faces of the cast.

But in the overall scheme of things, these reservations pale into insignificance, for this was an evening to cherish, featuring work by (mostly) young artists whose involvement in these classics of Western culture provided hope and assurances, too, for the future of the arts in our community. It was, in a word, terrific. If you weren’t there, you ought to have been!