It might have been billed as a “dog and pony show,” but there were no dogs or ponies, so perhaps “departmental sampler” comes closer to the mark. At UNC they call this sort of thing a “spectrum” concert. At the Gothic Rock Pile, triple bills (accompanied by still more events, crammed into one big weekend) celebrate parents. But here we were, at the very start of the season, just a week after Labor Day, and Duke’s Music Department mustered 19 artistic souls for sort of a survey course in great composers spanning nearly 300 years. It was impressive, in and of itself, and it was impressive, too, from a purely logistical standpoint, getting all those people in the right places at the right time and finishing the program in just seconds under two hours.
This was basically a singers’ evening, put together in large measure by mezzo-soprano Sandra Cotton. There were four sopranos, also members of the faculty – Susan Dunn, Penelope Jensen, Elizabeth Linnartz, and Leda Scearce. Distinguished baritone Wayne Lail made a welcome return to the platform. There were three pianists – Jane Hawkins, David Heid, and Kathryn Lewis, the latter best known locally for her work with Capital Opera. Harpsichordist Elizabeth Tomlin played a handsome single manual instrument. Also on hand were violinists Claudia Warburg and Sarah Griffin, the latter a grad student in the Music Department, violist Jonathan Bagg, cellists Fred Raimi and Brenda Neece, flutist Rebecca Troxler, oboist Bo Newsome, trumpeter Don Eagle, and harpist Laura Byrne.
Coloratura soprano Scearce, partnered in the very best sense of the word by Eagle and Heid, got things underway gracefully and elegantly with an aria by Alessandro Scarlatti – easily the evening’s most novel offering – and Handel’s “Let the bright seraphim.” Jensen, an exceptional baroque singer, then essayed an aria from Bach’s cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, with accompaniment by Raimi and Tomlin, and a second one, from the much rarer Mache mich, mein Geist bereit, in which the aforementioned instrumentalists were joined by Troxler and Neece. Jensen and Troxler then switched gears, radically, for Roussel’s Deux Poèmes de Ronsard, magnificently realized. It was then Cotton’s turn; she chose Ravel’s Chansons Madecasses, with what someone once described as troubling poems. Joining her for this tour-de-force were Troxler, Raimi, and Hawkins.
It should be said that the printed program included texts and translations and bios – these were particularly helpful for folks who aren’t constantly in attendance at Duke recitals – but no notes, for better or worse.
Part two began with more Bach as Linnartz brought the wonderful “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten” (from the Wedding Cantata) to vibrant life, capably abetted by Newsome, Warburg, Griffin, Bagg, Raimi, and Tomlin.
(I can’t let these Bach arias go without mentioning a performance of one of Bach’s Italian cantatas – No. 209: Non sa che sia dolore – given in Raleigh on the afternoon of September 13 by soprano Ellen Hargis and an outstanding ensemble of visiting “original instruments” practitioners. Hearing three more Bach arias within a couple of days, accompanied by “modern” instruments, hammered home the fact that, in all these matters, it’s the sensitivity of the artists that makes all the difference.)
Duets by Robert Schumann and Brahms featured Cotton once again, partnered by Lail and Lewis. These masters wrote these things for performance at home, and they’re best in intimate surroundings such as Nelson. That they are not often heard merely enhanced this listener’s delight on this occasion.
Delightful, too, but in a radically different way, was the program’s grand finale, the stunning trio from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier that begins with Octavian’s words, “Maria Theres’!” In order of appearance, the artists were Cotton, Dunn, and Linnartz, and Heid again anchored the brief performance. There was radiance aplenty here, but it really didn’t overshadow anything that preceded it, for this was an evening with many exceptional moments and virtually no shortcomings.
One of those exceptional moments was the program’s only purely instrumental work, the much-loved and often-heard Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Harp by Debussy, a score popularized hereabouts by the Mallarmé Chamber Players’ performances and early CD. In a sense, it’s bread and butter for the artists – here, Troxler, Bagg, and Byrne – but it’s rewarding for listeners, too – and it was far and away the evening’s most “modern-sounding” piece, even alongside the Roussel and Ravel heard earlier. There was also a great deal of “singing” in the realization, which preceded the Strauss. Singing — in the sense of projecting long melodic lines — is easy enough for outstanding flutists and violists to accomplish but somewhat harder for harpists, so this performance's overall lyricism — from all three artists — was indeed something to cheer.
Speaking of “modern” prompts one closing quip, however: perhaps coincidentally, the whole shebang consisted of works by dead European men, a fact that seemed remarkable indeed, in view of the many distinguished composers who over time have graced Duke’s Department of Music....