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Baldwin Auditorium was well-filled with friends, relatives, and many local music lovers anticipating music director Harry Davidson's intriguing "Music for the Season" program with the Duke University Symphony Orchestra. The menu of rarities ranged from Baroque and early Romantic, through 20th century works. Skilled soloists were paired with reduced ensembles while the full orchestra also had plenty to challenge it.
What a thought-provoking choice for an opener! The Overture in C by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-47), her only orchestral work, left the listener with reflections on what might have been, had she had a support equal to her brother, Felix. The themes and orchestration are attractive and effective. Fanny studied with Felix's teacher, C.F. Zelter. According to Marcia J. Citron, writing in Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, Fanny's scores are characterized by "lyricism, neo-Bachian procedures, attention to craftsmanship, and a respect for traditional syntax and procedures." The slow opening features fine scoring for pairs of horns and flutes and nice solos for clarinet and oboe. The faster portion features racing, shimmering strings and galloping rhythms. Davidson's players responded with fine solos and tight ensemble playing, the sheen of the violins was especially impressive.
It was nice to hear a refined work by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), the father of harpsichord composer Domenico Scarlatti. Alessandro pioneered the use of da capo aria and ritornello in his opera Teodora (1692) and accompanied recitative in his opera L'Olimpia vendicata (1685). He shared the patronage of Cardinal Ottoboni with Arcangelo Corelli. The string ensemble writing in Scarlatti's Cantata Pastorale per la Natività di Nostro Signore Gesu Cristo is reminiscent of Corelli's famous "Christmas Concerto." It is for soprano (originally for castrato), strings, and continuo. All of the composer's innovations are on display in this work.
The brilliant soloist was North Carolina native April Martin, whose career as a soprano has taken off nationally. Her diction in the Italian text (and the German text of the next selection) was excellent. Her voice is superbly supported and very even across its range; it had an almost instrumental purity as it soared to perfectly focused highs. Davidson and his reduced strings and harpsichord accompanied Martin admirably. Scarlatti is imaginative in scoring the accompaniment for the three pairs of recitatives and arias. Full strings served to introduce the opening recitative and between the pairs. A continuo consisting of concertmistress Zoey Kang, cellist Bill Tian, and harpsichordist Andy Zhang ably supported Martin not only in recitatives but unexpectedly in the first two arias.
Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (1730) by Johann Sebastian Bach (185-1750), has long been a favorite, with its brilliant high-lying solo parts for soprano and trumpet. It consists of aria, recitative, aria, choral, ending with a stirring "Alleluja" with trumpet. Martin and trumpeter Don Eagle were breathtaking as they soared and intertwined their musical lines. Their trills were marvelous. Davidson added a stand to each string section used in the Scarlatti along with bassoonist Rebecca Libera, who joined Kang, Tian, and Zhang on continuo.
The great 20th century English composers have been under-programed far too long on orchestral concerts in our region. Kudos for Davidson's enterprising selection of the enigmatic Symphony No. 5 in D (1943) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). At the time of its premiere, critics thought it was a valedictory effort of the then 70-year old composer, who however went on to create four more symphonies. While he was composing the Fifth, he was laboring at length with his opera The Pilgrim's Progress (1925-36, 1944-51), and some of its tunes are worked into the symphony's movements: I. Preludio, II. Scherzo, III. Romanza, and IV. Passacaglia. Like Bartók, Vaughan Williams had sublimated his deep studies of English folk music into his personal compositional style. Hugh Ottaway, in the BBC Music Guide: Vaughan Williams Symphonies, describes the Fifth as "the ultimate expression of his modal lyricism." The Scherzo makes use of a blending of pentatonic and modal material with elements of folk dance.
Davidson directed a deeply evocative and moving performance with impressive responses from every section of the orchestra. After a slightly shaky start, a pair of French horns settled to fine repeats of the eerie opening. All the string sections responded superbly, as did the brass and woodwinds. Very strong string solos were given by co-concertmistress Nicole Yoon, principal cellist Tian, and violist Nima Mohammadi. Secure, stirring woodwind solos were given by principal clarinetist Neel Prabhu, oboist Delia Li, and Lillian Clark, English horn.