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More music lovers ought to take advantage of classical concerts on their local college and university campuses in these times of tight budgets. The performances either cost a nominal price or are free like this concert that was held in Page Auditorium on the Duke University West Campus. Student musicians bring the intensity of first discovery, and the longer than standard professional rehearsal time can offset technical inexperience. This was true more often than not for music director Harry Davidson’s challenging final program of the fall season for the Duke Symphony Orchestra.
The Petite Suite, (1888) of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was originally composed for piano four hands. Henri Büsser, who had won the Prix de Rome like Debussy, orchestrated the suite in 1907. Neither the original nor orchestrated versions are often encountered on CDs or the concert hall. According to Grant Hiroshima’s program note for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Petite Suite was inspired by two poems from the 1869 volume Fêtes Galantes which evoke the era of 18th-century aristocratic country outings. The first movement, “En Bateau” (Sailing) suggests the languid serenity of relaxing on a floating boat. The twist in the Verlaine poem is unconsummated passion which Debussy implies in the piece’s wistful ending. There is nothing dull about “Cortège” (Retinue), the second movement. It portrays a lady and her escort of a “liveried monkey and pageboy” as she retires for the night. The lively tempos and playful orchestration may reflect the “less-than-pure thoughts on the minds of her companions.” The last two movements, “Menuet” and “Ballet,” broadly suggest the overall spirit of nostalgia and restrained sparkle in Verlaine’s poems.
Davidson led a stylish performance of Petite Suite with strong contributions from the flutes and other woodwinds and the strings in the first movement, especially in the dreamy opening. The string pizzicatos were lovely in “Cortège” with solid work from the woodwinds while the horns were sometimes uneven. The high violin passages came off well in “Menuet” and the viola section was especially pleasing. The accents and well-sprung rhythms were very good in the lively “Ballet” section.
Concerto No. 5 in A for Violin and Orchestra, K. 219 “Turkish” (1775) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) is the most often played and is the most interesting for both emotional content and its creative approach to form. The composer bucks tradition by making the light orchestral opening, traditionally the principal theme, the accompaniment to the violin soloist’s theme. There is an abundance of melodies along with unexpected minor tonalities. The slow movement is in E Major, the key Mozart used for especially sensuous melodies. He again toys with minor harmonies. The concerto’s “Turkish” nickname comes for the exotic, pulsing melody in the minor mode. The 18th century composers were much taken by so-called Middle Eastern or Hungarian music much like the French were to become of Indonesian gamelan orchestras heard in 19th-century Paris.
Davidson chose an unusual approach for the role of violin soloist, assigning each of the three movements to three different members of his violin section. He conducted a spirited and stylish interpretation and helped to unify the approach of his three soloists. The student orchestra generally accompanied well but Mozart never provides cover for errors which were not too distracting. Jacqueline Sun played the “Allegro aperto” with a lovely, warm tone, very good intonation, a considerable skill in the fast passages. Niloy Ghosh played the “Adagio” with a pleasing full tone as he spun out a seamless line of melody that seemed suspended in time. Roman Lin also brought a good tone and sufficient agility for the “Turkish Music” of the lively “Rondo” finale. All three dealt well with their cadenzas.
Davidson likes to challenge his student musicians with the great masterworks of the repertoire and for this concert he selected Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique (1893) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93). The conductor spoke from the podium about the nickname. While the literal English translation is “pathetic,” its meaning in both French and Russian “Pateticheskoy” is closer to “suffering.” Neither the composer nor his brother Modest ever revealed the work’s program. The mood of the symphony gets darker as each movement progresses. Its well-known four movements consist of a dark slow introduction to the first movement followed by an “allegro” in which the theme is fragmented' a second movement waltz that seems to have a limp; a powerful third movement “Allegro molto vivace” full of swagger that then crashes into the unrelenting darkness of the last movement.
The dark opening of the first movement came off superbly with the excellent solo bassoon of Ted Phillips, the dark rumblings of unfortunately only four double bass players and the first of many impressive section efforts by the violas. Trombones were the most consistent of the brasses. Cellos were pretty good in their section solo opening of the second movement. The violin sections’ high lying passages were excellent and all of the string sections’ pizzicatos generally were fine in the third movement. Brass sections were somewhat uneven but percussion had plenty of vim. The tragic ending of the fourth movement was fully brought out by the enthusiastic sweep of the players despite missed notes. The cello section and double basses played the deep low notes of the last bars superbly. It would be interesting to hear Davidson interpret this work with a professional orchestra.