The program at Baldwin Auditorium on Duke’s East Campus was titled “The Three ‘Bs’ ??” Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are the usual names associated with this tag. Brahms was not on the program, but Bernstein and Barber filled in for him quite nicely, thank you. Also, one of the great “Ls” (Liszt) sneaked into the program confidently and proudly. 

The concert opened with Bernstein’s exuberant, almost boisterous Overture to Candide. Probably programmed more often than any of his compositions, the Overture is a symphonic scoring of the main tunes of the operetta. It is a masterpiece of form, development, and orchestration in its own right. The Duke Symphony Orchestra under the outstanding direction of Maestro Harry Davidson handled it like popping the cork from a bottle of fine champagne with vigorous entrances, lively syncopation, and precise transitions.

Barber’s Adagio for Strings, one of the icons of American music, was a radical change in atmosphere and mood. It was Arturo Toscanni who suggested that Barber orchestrate the slow movement from his 1936 String Quartet, and it was first performed by the NBC Symphony on one of their weekly radio broadcasts in 1938. Barber later transcribed it for chorus using the text from the mass Agnus Dei, and this version has met with wide success as well. It is an ethereal and transcendent piece, some would say somber, with its slow and drawn out melodic lines. It is clear that it touches something very deep in the human psyche in whatever form it is performed. The challenge here is timing, intonation, and sustained playing and, again, the orchestra’s string section was up to the challenge beautifully.

Franz Liszt is one of the most seriously under-rated composers of the 19th century. He influenced practically every composer of the last half of the century and beyond, from his son-in-law Wagner and far abroad. He was a child prodigy as a pianist, apparently gave instruction gratis, and was intensely admired by them all. As a composer he was always seeking innovations and stretching harmonic possibilities. When he wrote the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major in 1856, he was at the height of his performance career as concert pianist and was seeking to create a showpiece beyond anything else that existed. The chromatic opening and the introduction of the triangle as a solo instrument created quite a hoopla at the time.

The soloist for this performance was Alyssa Zhu, winner of the 2007-08 Student Concerto Competition and currently a sophomore at Duke. She is pursuing a biology major with concentration in neurobiology and a minor in music with a concentration in piano performance. She is highly in demand and performs frequently at Duke and beyond.  She says in the concert program she “hopes never to give up the love that music brings to her and to others.” We join her in that hope.  Her performance was energetic and skilled with sensitivity that demonstrated an inside-out understanding of the music. 

After a short intermission break, the audience was treated to one of the classic three Bs: Bach, sung by the Beaufort (SC) High School Voices, a first class choral ensemble with an especially strong bass section and conducted by Victor Varner. They sang Alleluia from the Motet No. 6, the chorale “Sleepers Wake” (“Wachet Auf,” from Cantata 140), “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Cantata 147, with two-guitar accompaniment, an arrangement of the chorale “Come, Sweet Death” from Cantata 161, and “Sicut locutus est” from Magnificat, in which they were joined by the strings of the orchestra. Two of the selections were done with sign language movements providing a striking visual display. The second verse of “Come, Sweet Death,” as arranged by Rhonda Sandberg, was done in a freestyle in which each member of the chorus sings at his or her own pace and interpretation of the music under the direction of the conductor, producing an intense, wondrously dissonant, yet coherent sound. It was very nicely done.

The second half of the concert was occupied by the other true “B”: Beethoven. His Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major is often described as an Alpine maiden between two giant peaks (the Third and the Fifth). It is almost as frequently pointed out that this is no lesser product of his creative genius. After a rather ominous and somber introduction in the strings, Beethoven launches into a generally light, tuneful and joyous outing. It is almost as though he deals with his miserable life so wrought with health and personal problems and then says as he does specifically in the Nonth “not tones like these, but let us celebrate joy.” The Menuetto foreshadows the “Pastoral” Symphony in its lilting pace, and the closing movement surely captures a hopeful moment of victory. In this performance Davidson conducted entirely from an inner place of his own, no score or music stand necessary. His cues were precise for critical entries, his tempi relaxed, his phrasing molded the music like a sculpture.

In this near-professional-quality performance, I had to keep reminding myself that the vast majority of these student musicians are not music majors. It also seems fair to say that there are some outstanding music programs in prep schools around the country that are sending such well-rounded musical amateurs off to college to perform this impressively.

Note: For a review of a recent performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in Cleveland, conducted by Harry Davidson, click here.

Editor’s Note: Apropos nothing in particular, I infringe on Ken Hoover’s Duke SO review to mention another recent Duke concert of considerable merit. It was given in Baldwin Auditorium on March 1, at the unusual hour of 6:00 p.m., by the newest chamber orchestra of the Triangle (not to be confused with the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, which has done business here for a long time). This new one is called the Duke Chamber Players, and it’s a fluid and flexible band of 28 or 30 Duke students, led by Michael Wood. It is apparently run entirely by students, and they are scrambling to raise funds to buy music so they can keep the group going. The concert began less than successfully with a movement from Dvorák’s “American” Quartet that, in retrospect, seemed out of place, given the other repertoire, and that made the program a bit too long without a formal intermission. The rest of the evening proved altogether more successful and enjoyable. There was an attractive suite of music from Forrest Gump, composed by Alan Silvestri. Violinist Hsiao-mei Ku, of the Ciompi Quartet, was guest soloist in a suite of music from John William’s Schindler’s List. Robert Ward, celebrating his 90th year this season, was on hand for a fine performance of his “Raleigh Divertimento.” The program ended with a generally excellent reading of Copland’s “Ballet for Martha” (known as “Appalachian Spring”), given in its original (chamber) version. The playing was for the most part so good, so secure, so fresh, and so animated that it was often hard to believe that this quality of execution was coming from students in a non-degree-granting music program. The ensemble performs again on April 17, and we’ll include details in our calendar when we get them. Needless to say, I recommend hearing this group! John W. Lambert