There was a good turnout of music lovers, friends, and relatives in Baldwin Auditorium on the East Campus of Duke University for the final fall concert of the Duke Symphony Orchestra. Music Director Harry Davidson chose very challenging and apt pairings of early and late works of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The ending of life, as portrayed by composer in his youth and in his ultimate work, was coupled with highlights from his opera, Der Rosenkavalier (which, in its own way, explores both youth and old age – or maturity, for sure).

Strauss was a master of orchestration who expanded upon the innovations of Richard Wagner and the tone poem developed by Franz Liszt. On his deathbed, the composer remarked that death was just as he had musically sketched it in Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) Op. 24, (1889). The excellent program note had the textual description of the man’s dying divided into the tone poem’s four major sections: Largo, Allegro molto agitato, Meno mosso, ma sempre alla breve, and Moderato.

Davidson’s interpretation was excellent, and the quality of his student musicians’ playing was remarkable. Each of the huge string sections played with excellent unity and warm tone and often projected a fine sheen. The large woodwind section was superb. Only an occasional burble marred the solid performance of the five horns. Concertmaster Roman Lin and principal oboist Shelly Rusincovich played their important and numerous solos superbly. Other significant contributions were given by bassoonist Amy Kramer, clarinetist Paul Kim, principal flute Tomer Duman, principal trumpet Eric Jiang, and harpist Laura Byrne. The deep rumbling of the low strings and the solemn intoning of the trombones and tuba were memorable.

Davidson can be counted upon for imaginative programming, and this concert was no exception. By allowing only the briefest applause break, the link between Op. 24 and the Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), Op. posth. (1948), was unmistakable. The four songs are: “Frühling” (Spring), “September,” “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to Sleep), and “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset).

“At Sunset” was composed first, and music from Death and Transfiguration is quoted near its end. An unsigned article in Classic fM, “The Story Behind Strauss’ Four Last Songs” (available here) succinctly states that “into them Strauss poured the most fundamental aspects of his personality – a rainbow of orchestra colour, radiant lyricism, and his life-long love affair with the soprano voice.” It is difficult to conceive of a better example of the blending of poetry, voice, and orchestra.

Dina Kuznetsova, who quietly entered the stage during the close of Op.24, sang with a burnished and even sound, spinning seamless melodic lines. During the first two songs, the orchestra’s dynamics were a little too strong, and Kuznetsova’s voice so easily melded with Strauss’ soaring melodies that the words were not easily followed. This was much improved in the last two songs, with their quieter scoring. The final “Im Abendrot” was a simply breathtaking effort from singer and players.

Der Rosenkavalier (1910) is Strauss’ most beloved if not most innovative opera. Davidson chose three of the most important highlights from the opera. The duet “Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren” is the key scene in Act II, the presentation of the silver rose from which the opera’s title is drawn. The Marschallin’s secret lover, Octavian (like Mozart’s Cherubino always sung by a mezzo-soprano), makes the formal presentation to the bride-to-be Sophie. The duet portrays the beginning of their mutual attraction. The Trio “Marie Theres’!…Hab’mir’s gelobt” is the climactic scene in Act III, during which the Marshallin arrives unexpectedly to clean up the high jinks in the Baron Och’s room at the inn. It encompasses the confused emotions of all three as the Marshallin releases her lover. The lovers’ delight – Octavian’s and Sophie’s – ends the opera with the duet “Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein.”

Davidson’s Octavian, mezzo-soprano Samantha Gossard, and Sophie, sung by soprano Susan Williams, made strong visual and vocal contrasts. The mezzo is tall; and in her pantsuit, standing next to the much shorter Sophie, Gossard made a more “masculine” effect than is sometimes the case in opera. Both have strong, evenly supported voices that could (and did) surf over the waves of Strauss’ lush, Romantic orchestration. In contrast to Gossard’s full, warm mezzo-soprano, Williams’ sometimes stratospheric, precise highs, reminded me of recordings of Lily Pons when she soared above her plush lower and middle range. Kuznetsova fully conveyed the Marshallin’s noble resignation. Davidson and his players gave the score their all.