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Orchestral Music Review

A Gala Evening at Bargain Prices - the Duke Symphony Orchestra Launches its Season

September 30, 2009 - Durham, NC:

The 2009-10 concert year is upon us, nationwide, but there’s no need to envy those big cities in, say, the Northeast Corridor – folks in NC do just fine, thank you, when it comes to launching fall seasons in style. In Baldwin Auditorium on the last day of September, the Duke Symphony Orchestra offered a gala concert that would have packed ‘em in and left ‘em cheering at Lincoln Center – two outstanding soloists, in two splendid concertos, augmented by two festive overtures, all played by a large orchestra (90+ musicians) led by a conductor whose skills in the training and development departments equal his artistic acumen.

The occasion was an all-Mendelssohn program, consisting of the “Trumpet” Overture, Op. 101, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in E minor, the “Hebrides” Overture, Op. 26, and the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. The second overture and the violin concerto are well enough known, but this concert was at Duke, and Duke is the home base of R. Larry Todd who, Conductor and Music Director Harry Davidson explained, is “the foremost authority on Mendelssohn in the world.” (Few would dispute that statement.) And with Todd playing, as it were, for Duke, the program took on truly exceptional qualities. He explained that the “Trumpet” Overture, rarely heard, stems from just months before the better-known one for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – that both were composed when Mendelssohn was 17 is, well, amazing, isn’t it? The MSND Overture was heard in this venue last spring, so memory of it was fresh enough for listeners to note some strong similarities in the “Trumpet” Overture, a work that displays comparable inventiveness and compositional skills. It was played beautifully, with great sensitivity and keen attention to phrasing and dynamics.

Next up was the Third Piano Concerto. How’s that? Yep, Todd found the incomplete manuscript in the UK, and with some encouragement from colleagues (including former Duke SO MD Allan H. Bone), he orchestrated the first movement and fleshed out the second. The third, alas, was missing altogether, but it happens that the piece was begun contemporaneously with the Violin Concerto, and the keys are the same, so when conductor Kurt Masur suggested that the truncated version needed completion, it was a (comparatively) short hop to rewriting the finale of Op. 64 for piano…, especially in consideration of precedents elsewhere, including Beethoven’s “Sixth” Piano Concerto, based on his Violin Concerto…. All this Todd explained to the large audience, and then we heard the local premiere of this engaging reconstruction.

The soloist was Cicilia Yudha, a stunning pianist from Indonesia* with academic roots in New England and Cleveland who is currently pursuing a doctorate at UNCG. Her teachers have included Olga Radoslavjevich, who has performed with the Duke SO several times and who came from Cleveland for this concert, and, in Greensboro, John Salmon and Andrew Willis, the good works of both of whom have been praised in these pages. (See http://www.newenglandconservatory.edu/yaStudies/faculty/yudhaC.html [inactive 10/09, so see below...] for her slightly out-of-date bio from the New England Conservatory.)

The “new” work is remarkable in many respects; the reconstruction has given us yet another excellent score from a great master. The performance seemed totally in keeping with the music, and the watchfulness of soloist and conductor resulted in a beautifully integrated reading. The first movement, mostly Mendelssohn, proved thoroughly engaging, prompting wonder that he’d abandoned it. The second, a slow and introspective thing of considerable beauty, worked extremely well – but of course there are few living souls who know the composer as well as Todd. The finale was a special treat, given the popularity and familiarity of the Violin Concerto; that the solo line has been transferred in what seems like such a highly idiomatic way is remarkable in every respect. The new Steinway sounded great, and the artists were rewarded enthusiastically with sustained applause.

Following the intermission, the strains of the “Hebrides” Overture (also known as “Fingal’s Cave”) allowed for close concentration on the skills of the orchestra, since the music seems to turn up frequently. It was, I think, a brave thing to program a big concert like this so early in the academic year, especially since the Duke SO had done a pops read-through at the start of the semester; to have pulled off this program of basically new music – certainly new to most of the members of the orchestra – and to have delivered it so skillfully is, well, as remarkable as the music we heard.

And it wasn’t over, by any means, for the program continued with the original version of the Violin Concerto, as edited by Todd and as realized by Eric Pritchard, of the Ciompi Quartet. He poured himself, heart and soul, into this score, delivering a performance that may have been his best to date here. There are relatively minor differences between this version and the final one; Todd cited the shorter cadenza in the first movement as the most significant example, but there were other, lesser modifications in the solo line prior to that cadenza and evidence of slight tweaking in a few places in the second and third movements. If you hadn’t known, you might not have noticed. And certainly, the performance itself unfolded with great energy, incisiveness, and sweep.

There wasn’t much to fuss about anywhere, really, although the clarinets may have tired a bit in the last number, and there were some splats here and there (which happens in the major leagues, too…). But think about it – a big concert (over at nearly quarter past ten), early in the term, played with virtually professional skills by 90+ eager instrumentalists, capped by two splendid soloists, applauded by an enthusiastic audience, and all basking in the radiance of Mendelssohn’s music, revealed in part by a world-class scholar – well, it was quite a night, for sure. Let the season continue!

P.S. Did I say it was free, and that there’s no hassle about parking on this end of Duke University?

*As this concert began, news from Indonesia about the latest earthquake was just beginning to break. It’s probably just as well the guest artist didn’t know the extent of the disaster....

Note: Since the pianist's bio at NEC has crashed, here's a MySpace link to some selections from concerts: