Maestro Harry Davidson led the Durham Symphony Orchestra in an outstanding concert on his home turf, Baldwin Auditorium, with the help of two extraordinary teenage soloists. It was an afternoon that hinted, at least, of spring. There were several competing activities going on in other venues, yet there was a pretty good crowd scattered in the auditorium.
The program was tagged as “Honoring ‘Papa’” in reference to “Papa” Joseph Haydn, beloved conductor of the musicians of the Esterhazy estate and essentially the father of the sonata form as it was developed in the symphony and string quartet. Opening the program, Davidson introduced the “Clock” Symphony, No. 101 in D (so named for the tic-toc sound that starts the second movement). It is one of the twelve symphonies written for fawning London audiences from 1791 through 1795 which show Haydn at his best, still working out remarkable solutions to musical challenges, still devising new techniques in style, form and orchestration to keep his music fresh and young - and he was in his sixties through most of this time!
The “Clock” opens with a somber adagio, the kind of music that wants to lull you into a mood of self-reflection and almost slumber. But no, Haydn has set you up! After a second phrase of this lugubrious music, he launches into a lively, playful presto. In the second movement beginning with the steady clock-like theme, he adds a lovely, singable melody of folk-like charm, adds a middle section that may take you here or maybe there and then returns to the first theme again. The third movement is a delightful Menuet with trio and the Finale marked vivace spins with energy and youthful vigor to the end. Just think of it: more than two hundred years since this music was written it is still worthy of study for its ingenious creativity in developing the basics of musical form and still popular on concert programs for the pleasure and delight it delivers. Davidson, conducting from memory, led the orchestra in a clean and crisp performance. Entrances were together, phrasing was shaped meaningfully, and the details were clear throughout.
The middle of the concert featured two outstanding concerto soloists, winners of this year’s Durham Symphony Orchestra Young Artists Competition; Orin Laursen, violin, and Keiran Campbell, cello. Laursen performed the first movement of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47. It was a luminous and rapturous performance for both the soloist and the orchestra. Laursen displayed technical skills, confidence and heart. The orchestra was excellent from the opening shimmering ostinato over which the main theme is lyrically introduced by the violin soloist. Sibelius’ unique sound, full of Finland’s chilled forests and clouds flitting across a full moon, has always held me in its mystical sway. The playing today was full of give and take, outbursts like gusts of wind, mellow harmonies like the promised warmth of an open fireplace with dancing flames. It left me with a yearning for the second and third movements, yet grateful for the thrill of hearing this much of this twentieth century gem.
An intermission separated Sibelius (1865-1957) from Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) and a thrilling performance of his Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33. Adventurous and exciting with a charming little folksy foray in its core, this music offers challenge and opportunity for the cello soloist to shine. Campbell’s performance was technically on the mark and his emotional involvement with the music conveyed understanding and communication. Here again the orchestra was in fine form, well prepared and up to the task. One little incident impressed me. When one or two strands of Campbell’s bow wore apart in the middle, as they will often do, his grasp of the music and his self confidence enabled him to switch his bow to his left hand, pull off the distracting broken strands with his right hand and then switch the bow back, just in time to come in on his next entrance perfectly. Very nice.
The conclusion of the concert returned to the “Honoring ‘Papa’” theme with a performance of Brahms’ tribute, Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a. We have known for a while that the origin of the St. Anthony Chorale, on which the piece is based, is quite murky. It was not composed by Haydn, was possibly composed by his pupil Ignaz Pleyel or possibly simply quoted by Pleyel from an earlier source. Never-the-less, Brahms believed it to be from Haydn and intended his variations to be a tribute to the great composer he sincerely admired. It begins with a chorale statement of the theme scored much as Pleyel had scored it in his Divertimento No. 1. There follows eight variations, each with distinctive features, and a magnificent passacaglia finale. Davidson, conducting again without a score in front of him, led the orchestra in a measured and balanced performance, accounting admirably for both the intellect and restrained emotion of one of Brahms best known works.
Maestro Davidson is the fourth we have heard of the five candidates being considered for the post of Conductor of the Durham Symphony Orchestra. We look forward to the Pop’s in the Park Series in April and May to be led by Wayne Wyman, Managing Director of the Capitol Opera. Watch the CVNC calendar for specific dates, times and locations. Excitement builds as we anticipate the choice of the best fit for DSO’s next director. One thing I can say here is that it is abundantly clear that the orchestra has benefitted from the insights and guidance of each of the four we have heard thus far. The future seems bright indeed for a musically mature orchestra in Durham.