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The Duke Symphony Orchestra returned to Baldwin Auditorium, its lovely home on the University's East Campus, for a live-in-person concert under the leadership of Harry Davidson, now in his 23rd season there. The attendees were all masked and reasonably well socially distanced. The orchestra is a component of Duke's Department of Music.
It was an altogether admirable program of the meat-and-potatoes variety, Classical-era style - music by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven with composition dates spanning just thirteen years - but with artistic results miles and miles apart.
The opener was the Overture to Haydn's opera L'isola disabilita (The Deserted Island) (1779). You will be forgiven if you know little about Haydn operas, of which there were/are around 20. Senior readers may recall performances in English of The World on the Moon by the old National Opera Company (aka Grass Roots), and many of these works have been recorded, but Haydn's forte (in retrospect) wasn't opera. Bearing that in mind, this overture was something of a revelation, for it was far more dramatic than expected - the adagio introduction was as dramatic as anything in late Mozart, for sure - and the piece could easily have been mistaken for a mini-symphony in several distinct movements (albeit played without pause).
Davidson reduced the orchestra of 78 (per the published roster) to quasi-chamber-orchestra size (but with more than ample strings), and the overall result was splendid.
So, too, was the realization of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488, composed just seven years later, in which the young master looked back to Haydn and ahead, too, sometimes almost at the same time. This is a great, great work, and soloist Ieva Jokubaviciute, a member of Duke's faculty since the summer of 2020, was marvelous throughout, imbuing the music with thought, feeling, emotion, and passion as required. Davidson and his orchestral players were spot-on too, never overpowering the keyboard instrument (a handsome Steinway grand) and beautifully balanced in all the charming exchanges between the pianist and the other players. There was strength in detail as well as in numbers in this ensemble, and some of the orchestral solos were virtually stellar. The concerto came across as a love-fest, with Mozart admirably served for the delectation of the substantial live audience and the online viewers too.*
Following a brief intermission, Davidson spoke with sadness about the challenging fall** during which this program was prepared and praised the players, who clearly viewed this as a joint undertaking, as evidenced by their performance. Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36 (composed just five years after the Mozart), is a work that is surely a favorite among connoisseurs of LvB, but it tends to be overshadowed by the bigger, more stormy pieces that were to follow. The reading on this occasion was lyrical, poetic, and immediate, with fine work, technically, and an overall pleasing interpretation. Did we actually hear a portamento or two? The performance was lovely throughout, and deeply moving on several levels, not least of which was the quite powerful impact of live music shared with others, gathered together in the same hall. And never mind that there were times during the concert when it was easy to forget that this is an orchestra of (mostly) young people - students discovering some of this great music for perhaps the first time in their lives. Well done.
*Readers may hear the entire concert here.
**This semester has included the loss of Davidson's beloved spouse Wendy and other struggles with illness. There's a GoFundMe project underway to assist Davidson with his son's education. For those of us who admired her as an artist, teacher, or colleague, this would be a notable memorial for Wendy. See https://www.gofundme.com/f/u4bfv2-averys-college-fund.