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The Duke Symphony Orchestra presented its season’s opening concert in Baldwin Auditorium with a program entitled “ ‘Czech’ This Out!,” featuring works of Dvorák, Stamitz and Vorisek. The huge mostly-student orchestra crowded the stage while a sizeable audience filled the square-shaped linoleum and concrete auditorium with its signature domed ceiling.
The program notes, well-written by three students, two seniors and a sophomore, inform us that Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek (1791-1825) idolized Beethoven and was a close friend of Franz Schubert. He has left few works for posterity: a violin sonata, piano pieces for which he coined the title “Impromptu,” a Mass and this Symphony in D. Notably original were the harmonic treatment of the second movement (Adagio) and the robust Scherzo written in an unusual 9/8 meter (instead of the traditional 3/4).
The first warm mellow entrance of the massive string section (43 violins, 9 violas, 12 celli and 2 basses) set the tone for the evening. All the string sections played beautifully and with a precision belying both the number and the youth of the musicians. The first Horn, bassoon, oboe and clarinet were outstanding in the Scherzo. The Finale was brilliantly played and driven by conductor Harry Davidson to a momentous climax in the coda.
Long-time faculty members, Hsiao-Mei Ku, violin and Jonathan Bagg, viola, joined the students in a charming performance of Karel Stamic’s (Karl Stamitz, 1745-1801) Sinfonia Concertante in D. Although the violins sections’ size had been reduced by half, it was difficult to hear the soloists when the orchestra was playing, which is a pity because both soloists have beautiful tones and matched vibratos, thanks to their long collaboration as colleagues in the Ciompi String Quartet. When they were not dialoguing, they were playing together in Italianate passages in thirds and sixths, where their styles matched each other perfectly.
The second half of this concert was filled by a very well-executed Dvorák Symphony, the Sixth in G, Op. 88 and the second such performance this reviewer has heard in the space of a week. The students played their hearts out and Maestro Davidson led with courage and conviction, dosing tempos and crescendos with mastery. But as is often the case, diminuendos and soft passages were elusive and woodwind solos, such as the flute obbligato in the first movement, were often lost, except in the second movement, where they were mostly doubled. Minor intonation incidents (flat flute, sharp oboe, bassoon and trumpets) crept in as the evening progressed, probably because of fatigue. The size of the violin sections caused the brass to face the audience and instead of playing across the orchestra, they addressed the audience. The otherwise very fine principal trombone played her loud passages very much “in your face,” especially for the crowd in the balcony.
This was a fine start for the season and the talented and experienced conductor, Harry Davidson, who, it should be noted, conducted both symphonies without a score, should be congratulated for the fine job of teaching and directing his young charges!