Those who have strolled or jogged on the path just within the wall that surrounds the east campus of Duke University have for the past two years been obliged to dodge construction trucks, temporary fencing, and detours around the area of Baldwin Auditorium. Except for some new walkways and relatively unobtrusive landscaping changes, however, there didn’t seem to be any alterations to the exterior of the building itself. This long-overdue renovation was almost entirely an interior and out-of-sight job. At last, the doors to this magnificent transformation were finally flung open and we all got to see and hear the rebirth of what Duke President Richard Brodhead refers to as the “focal point” of Duke’s east campus.

Baldwin Auditorium, built in 1930 and later named for Alice Baldwin, the first dean of Duke’s Women’s College, had an oddly configured inner space, both aesthetically and acoustically, which made it less than ideal for both performers and audience members. After years of diplomatic pleading and letter writing to senior-level officers of the University, a sum of $15 million was allocated by the Duke Endowment for the renovation of Baldwin. While I was one of those who never really felt that it was that bad – either from the stage or auditorium – the “wow” factor upon first entering, seeing, and then hearing this metamorphosis was overwhelming.

The inaugural evening was a defining moment in Duke University’s commitment to the arts, as evidenced by the opening remarks of distinguished guests. President Brodhead gave a very illuminating – and undeniably entertaining – speech regarding this very concept. In direct language he acknowledged the duo of athletics and medicine as the most visible of disciplines at Duke, but he also expressed a commitment – although not entirely specific – to elevate the arts at Duke to that level and stated that this Baldwin re-opening was just the beginning of that process. His polite and euphemistic description of the old Baldwin space as “profoundly sub-optimal” drew a lively response, but his point was that we now have a venue on campus to which  anyone can now come to experience excellence on every level.

The final speaker was Tallman Trask III, Executive Vice President, Duke University, whose office was instrumental in securing and authorizing funds for this renewal. He spoke about the state-of-the-art acoustics, the literally soundless air-handling system, and the fact that this is now a living, “tunable” venue. He said that it was at the moment set for microphones, but with a theatrical snap of his fingers it was transformed to an acoustical gem, for the first time. The back curtains drew across to the wings to reveal a lovely wood back wall, and side panels were raised within the new interior walls for a better reflective surface. The talk was now done. While it was certainly the case that the building and the architects and acousticians who designed this change were the stars for this opening event, the music is what this is all about, and the best was yet to come.

Although it’s almost a given that the word will spread and Baldwin will become known as a world-class venue, the opening concert was deservedly a local and purely American celebration. All the musicians who performed are either current Duke Department of Music faculty or students or have an affiliation with the school. The works chosen are two American masterpieces that evoke a general feeling of nostalgic hopefulness that perhaps harkens back to the original construction of Baldwin Auditorium.

The opening work was Aaron Copland’s 1944 Appalachian Spring, perhaps the best-loved orchestral work by an American composer. The chamber orchestra conductor was Harry Davidson, now in his 15th year as Music Director and Conductor of the Duke Symphony Orchestra and Director of Opera at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

So this was the moment: show us, acoustically speaking, what all this money and fuss are all about. With the first notes and the slowly-building chords played by the strings, the sound enveloped one in a warmth and beauty that certainly didn’t exist in this building before and that would be the envy of any other venue. When the woodwinds entered there was a stunning clarity and separation as if each instrument had an aurally-highlighted text. This, combined with the absence of any extraneous air-conditioning noise, struck me as sonically momentous as the first time I listened to music through high-end headphones.

I have to apologize as I may appear to be giving the musicians and music little credit for this. Nothing can be further from the truth. This was a riveting and quietly emotionally charged performance, played at the highest level of technical brilliance. Davidson led the ensemble with his usual sensitivity and allegiance to the spirit of the music and will forever claim the honor of leading the new Baldwin’s first performance.

Only three years after Copland’s work came Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, another truly “American” work but with a very different harmonic language. Set in an idealized and wistful vision of early 20th century America, this work is usually performed with a soprano soloist singing the engaging text by James Agee. Here, however, it was sung by tenor James McStoots, a 1997 Duke graduate who is enjoying a wildly successful career. He sang with a pure tone and impeccable diction that made you feel as if you were just listening to a beloved friend describing his childhood, rather than a trained opera singer. There were times when McStoots was overpowered a bit by the orchestra, where the usual soprano probably would not have been. Conductor Rodney Wynkoop wisely did not skimp on the dynamics to accommodate those moments, and his direction of this ravishing score was a beautifully honed evocation of Barber’s vision. At the conclusion of the work, he raised his arms to the beautifully restored dome and renewed interior and that received a thunderous standing ovation.

The evening could not have gone any better. The added bonus was a lovely reception in perfect fall weather on the porch at the front of the music building. A new era at Duke has begun. Let’s hope that the promise of placing the Arts at the forefront of University life – and funding –will be fully realized.

Additional Baldwin celebration concerts are planned for October 25 and 26. For more information, click here and here.