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The Duke Symphony Orchestra wrapped up another academic year under the baton of their treasured teacher and conductor, Harry Davidson. The printed concert program included fourteen farewell messages from graduating students, each of them expressing gratitude for the experiences of participating in the preparation and performance of great classical music. They will go on to further their education and pursue careers in medicine, engineering, economics, etc. The joy of music making will go with them and enrich their lives and the communities where they will live.
On this occasion, they celebrated the conclusion of the concert season with a remarkable performance of Tchaikovsky’s exuberant Serenade for Strings, Op.48, composed in 1880. It is interesting that Tchaikovsky noted in the score "The larger number of players in the string orchestra, the more this shall be in accordance with the author's wishes." Duke Symphony Orchestra lists 21 first violins, 19 second violins, 8 violas, 13 violoncellos and 4 basses. Tchaikovsky might have been very happy with this; but even more so with the inspired performance.
Davidson had his charges well prepared and they delivered a nuanced performance, attentive to all of the rubato phrasings Tchaikovsky indicated and implied in the score. Transitions were done smoothly and naturally and all Romantic era techniques were on the mark. The first movement, marked Pezzo in forma di Sonatina, was intended as a tribute to Mozart, written in the style of the Classical sonatina. The luxurious andante introduction begins with double stopping in the violin and viola parts creating towering chords of string sounds. This passage appears at the end of the movement and again, slightly altered, as the conclusion of the fourth movement.
The Waltz movement was superb with the half-pauses like leaning into the next step almost visible in the vividness of the performance. Crescendos and diminuendos maintained balance and purpose in their execution.
The heart-rending Élégie movement was another opportunity for the orchestra to pour emotional expressiveness into the music. Some of the descending phrases hinted at the fourth movement of the "Pathetique" Symphony which would come some 13 years later.
A somewhat more lively Finale lost none of the elegance exhibited already and the closing recall of the first movement andante was thrilling. The audience acknowledged their awareness that they had heard an exceptional performance with vigorous applause.
Internationally acclaimed pianist Cicilia Yudha was the featured soloist in a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat, K. 449. The orchestra was reduced in size to a chamber orchestra with a couple of French horns and oboes. This work is acclaimed as the first of Mozart's mature concertos and included three movements of the highest quality. It is somewhat unusual in that the opening movement is in 3/4 time.
It required an adjustment in listening to move from the emotional effusiveness of Tchaikovsky to the more subtle and gentle charm of Mozart. Yudha’s touch was lyrical but moving forward with purpose in the first movement. The second movement was sweet with crystalline arpeggios and chorale-like chords. The final Allegro ma non troppo, with Mozart's contrapuntal inventiveness, sounded at times like a Bach fugue. Yudha's precise playing brought wondrous transparency and power to the music. Davidson kept the orchestra restrained and they played with silken smoothness, always in support of the soloist.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Finland's first great composer, Jean Sibelius. To be sure, he has his detractors as well as his enthusiastic supporters who see genius in his symphonic language. In each of his seven symphonies he approached symphonic form in a unique way. In the Seventh Symphony he had arrived at the point of developing the whole work from a seed theme, step by step but seamlessly.
The Symphony No 2 in D, Op. 43, is probably the most popular of Sibelius' work. Finns saw in the glorious triumphal finale a nationalistic gesture of defiance in the face of the Tsar. Sibelius denied any programmatic intent. In the famous meeting with Mahler in 1907, Mahler said, "The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing." Sibelius expressed his view that a symphony is about "severity of form" and the "profound logic" that should connect symphonic themes. In other words, Sibelius was not concerned so much about what references were in a symphony, but that it makes sense as music.
The Duke Symphony Orchestra's performance of Sibelius' 2nd lacked the finesse and polish exhibited earlier in the Tchaikovsky Serenade. Sibelius' practice of breaking down thematic material into murmuring textures as building blocks confuses many interpreters. It was nevertheless a credible and moving performance. The buildup in the fourth movement exercised promise and restraint until the final repeat when the heroic theme blossoms into major. Then the full orchestra, led by a choir of eager brass players and spurred on by their enthusiastic conductor, pulled out all the stops concluding with an overwhelming plagal cadence. Baldwin Auditorium resounded with fulfilment and satisfaction as the assembled listeners exploded into grateful applause.