If this were a sports page, we'd say that Duke beat State, for sure – and then opine that the outcome of the Duke-UNC contest remains in doubt. This isn't.... But the overall performance of the Duke Symphony Orchestra in Baldwin Auditorium on October 4 was superior to the overall performance of the NCSU-based Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, size and depth of forces notwithstanding. (UNC's Symphony Orchestra plays on the evening of October 10.)
As we've often noted, Duke SO Music Director Harry Davidson has done an amazing bit of orchestral reconstruction on the campus of the Gothic Rockpile; this year's roster lists 98 players, including nearly 70 strings. There is safety in numbers, and size matters, in orchestral terms. But an ensemble of this magnitude could be an unholy mess if the playing wasn't up to snuff. At Duke, Davidson has abundant talent, and the quality of the players is evident in nearly everything they do.
This semester, the programs celebrate Mozart and Shostakovich, and on this first concert of the season, the bill of fare included the "Festive" Overture, Op. 96, and Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107, of the latter and the "Jupiter" Symphony of the former. The soloist was Darrett Adkins, who has appeared with this orchestra previously.
The two Russian works were separated by only five years, having been composed in 1954 and 1959, respectively. They gave good examples of Shostakovich's richly – perhaps wildly – divergent style. The Overture is a happy, raucous, exciting piece with few undercurrents, and the Duke SO played it boldly, forcefully, and with great élan. The Cello Concerto was apparently inspired in part by Prokofiev's even more substantial Sinfonia concertante, for cello and orchestra, and on this occasion the kinship of the two pieces – both of which were famous Rostropovich vehicles – was particularly evident. Adkins threw himself into the stirring opening movement with considerable passion, although at times one might have wanted still more. The reflective slow movement, one of the Master's most stirring, was realized with breathtaking skill and was comparably well supported by the orchestra. For reasons never clear to this listener, Shostakovich's extended cadenza is set off as a separate movement, but it nonetheless leads immediately and without pause into the stirring and tempestuous finale. As it happens, this concluding movement overflows with quotes and allusions, all illuminated in the fine program note by DSO member Kristofer Machado*, but one can of course enjoy the music for the romp that it is without delving into the composer's intent. Adkins and Davidson and Company gave us the best of all possible worlds with their outstanding collaboration.
After the intermission came Mozart's last and – some would affirm – greatest symphony, the famous "Jupiter" Symphony, K.551. It's been a real treat to hear two of the last three symphonies in the last four days, played by university-based ensembles whose personnel seemed pleased and excited to be performing these indisputably great works. At Duke, the "big band" approach to Mozart may have caused some throat-clearing on the parts of the HIP (historically-informed performance) crowd and the musicologists, too, but Davidson and the orchestra succeeded brilliantly – more brilliantly than anyone had any reasonable right to expect, but for all the effort that clearly went into preparing it.... From start to finish, this is one of the finest works in all of Western art music, and the finale is surely divinely inspired, if any music ever was. Mozart also gives few places to hide. None were needed on this occasion, and the standing ovation that resulted said it all. Bravo.
The next concert in this series, planned for December 6, includes Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat, with Eric Pritchard, violin, and Jonathan Bagg, viola, plus Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.
*Program notes on the "Festive" Overture were by Cheryl Ho and on the Mozart, by Michael Wood. Duke's practice of including program notes by members of the Duke SO is altogether commendable.
Duke has done more to honor Shostakovich hereabouts than any other presenter, although no one can complain about the UNCSO's pending Symphony No. 6, which will be reviewed in these pages. But Duke also offered two days of Shostakovich films, starting on the actual 100th anniversary of his birth, on September 25. That evening, in the Richard White Auditorium, Neil Lerner, now at Davidson College, spoke about the composer and introduced the Ciompi Quartet, which encored the bleak Quartet No. 13 played the previous weekend at Duke. The film was the 1981 biography, Dimitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola (1981), by Semyon Aranovich and Aleksandr Sokurov. It presupposes a certain knowledge of the composer's life and works, and it's somewhat disjointed, but attendees certainly left with a greater appreciation of the struggles of Shostakovich's life. The following day brought the classic silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925), by Sergei Eisenstein, in a superior print and with added music by Shostakovich, culled from many of the symphonies and other orchestral works by other hands, after the composer's death. The music was nonetheless effective, and we are grateful to Hank Ozaki and the Duke University Film/Video/Digital Program for these opportunities to see Shostakovich in new and different lights.