Word must have gotten out that Branford Marsalis and Susan Fancher were going to perform Sunday afternoon, because when this reviewer showed up twenty minutes before the concert, there was no place to park; and when I got in the hall, I was lucky to find a vacant seat in the balcony. By the time the concert started, it was standing room only in Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium.
The concert was a fine offering to the full crowd. Conductor Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant has led the Durham Medical Orchestra (which recently changed its name from Duke Medicine Orchestra) to be the equal, at least, to any amateur orchestra in the state, to my knowledge. The musicians are professionals in the health industry, and can spare their Sunday evenings for weekly rehearsals – they do a remarkable job.
The first offering was a short piece by Mösenbichler-Bryant's husband Steven Bryant, "In This Broad Earth." written this year. It started with a loud fanfare, and stayed fortissimo for most of its length. There is a distinct tendency in the last several decades, especially in American music, to stress the brass, winds, and percussion, with strings often drowned out or playing minor roles. This work was very much in that mold, with full brass and percussion sections quite active most of the time. The music was quite accessible, original, and well-liked by the audience.
The next piece was Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 from 1808. When performing a warhorse like this with a group of amateurs, the point is for the players to have a chance to play the music, not to compete with the stacks of recordings by the world's great orchestras. At the same time, it is impossible for the audience to not have imprinted in their grey matter the performance traditions of the last two hundred years; that is the major challenge with well-worn repertoire.
The first movement is a particular challenge, right from the "V for Victory" tattoo opening. This orchestra had fine intonation, good articulation, and played together; but as a responsible reviewer, I must point out a few points that could be improved. First, this opening movement has quite a few critical fermatas and phrases that require a lot of rubato, whether or not they are indicated in the score. These variations in beat were minimized in this performance. Second, and most critical, the tendency in the balance here (and throughout the evening) was for the brass and winds to be much too loud. The delicate string figurations, in the cellos especially, were frequently inaudible, and in several places where a dramatic fortissimo is needed suddenly in the strings, the effect did not come off. True, there were six trumpets and six horns instead of the two each in the score, to let musicians have a chance to play. But due to the technology of the day, these parts tend to be simple and supportive, not the center of attention. Our ears are spoiled by recordings where the balance can be dialed in by engineers, not dictated by the acoustics of the hall and enthusiasm of the players.
The second movement was well done. The Scherzo included more rubato, which worked to good effect. The final movement, which was only the second symphony (and the first well-known symphony) to include trombones, was even more overbalanced in favor of the brass. One of the three trombones was replaced by a euphonium, which was only really detectable in a couple of passages, where it sounded just fine. (Note that I am quite a fan of euphoniums.) All in all, the performance did work, and with the above cautionary notes, was quite enjoyable.
After intermission came "Tragic Overture" of 1880 by Johannes Brahms. This was a companion piece to the "Academic Festival Overture" written in the same summer, in response to the offering of a doctorate from the University of Breslau, sort of a yin-yang complimentary opposite balancing act. The performance, although still with balance problems, was done with a fine touch and sense of drama. On hearing it done with a euphonium in place of one of the trombones, one rather wishes that was specified in the score.
The last work on the program was most likely the cause for the lack of seating: the Double Concerto in D minor by J. S. Bach, arranged by Sid Richardson for two soprano saxophones and a large orchestra. This was the opportunity to see Marsalis and Fancher perform as soloists with the orchestra. On seeing the stage fill with a pianist, harpist, four percussionists plus timpanist, and everyone else in the orchestra, I was afraid that this would be like Stokowski's extravagant Bach orchestrations, and wondered if I would be able to hear Branford or Fancher. The first movement put these fears to rest, as the orchestration was quite measured and appropriate, and never overwhelmed the soloists. On the flip side of that, though, is that I never actually heard the piano or the harp, and many people on the stage seemed underutilized. The original composition is for two violins, small string section, and harpsichord, so the expansion is considerable. As with Beethoven's Fifth, this work is extremely well-known, and is a large factor in the resurgence of interest in Baroque music in the 20th century.
The first movement went quite well, being moderately fast and not too bad on saxophones. The first and last movements are characterized by melodies that have huge intervals to cover, which are not so hard on a violin; the soprano saxes were faced with skips well over an octave quite frequently, which with these soloists were not problems. The slow movement is hard to justify for performance on two soprano saxophones, even with such fine musicians taking it on. The middle movement is so quintessentially a string piece, so reliant on what string instruments do so well, that doing it with saxophones just can't do it justice.
The third movement is a rather sassy, almost jazzy, up-tempo romp in minor key that is quite well suited to soprano saxophones, and came off superbly. There was a detectable swing just at the edges to the saxophones, that worked well. At the conclusion (marked by a Stokowskian massive final ritardando!), the audience came to its feet with an enthusiastic ovation. After a Christmas bon-bon for an encore, a rendition of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" (which one can hardly avoid this time of year) with the orchestra festooned in red hats, the audience retired to the evening well-pleased by an enjoyable concert.