Thanks to the Duke Symphony Orchestra, Baldwin Auditorium resounded with music of extraordinary beauty on December 1. Under the rubric “Engaging English Encounters 2,” Music Director Harry Davidson forged a program of rarities by Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton that would have challenged any professional orchestra, much less a university ensemble made up of a broad mix of music majors and those for whom music is an avocation.

Vaughan Williams’ “Rhosymedre” Prelude, for strings, was unknown to me. According to the fine program notes by violinist Ian Carlos Han (Class of 2005), this was the most popular of Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes that the composer wrote for organ in 1920. “Rhosymedre,” sometimes called “Lovely,” was written by 19th century Welsh composer J. D. Edwards and consists of “the hymn tune, in long note values, … surrounded by a moving bass line and a treble obbligato in faster notes.” The arrangement for strings is by Arnold Foster. The distribution of parts among the different string sections is imaginative. As roles changed, the fine unity within each section of the Duke Symphony Orchestra was shown to its best advantage and augured well for the more daring scores that followed.

Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, the viola is one of the “middle voice” instruments that “doesn’t get respect,” and there are precious few concertos written for it. New Grove II tells us that “to replicate the acoustical results of the violin (standard length 35.5 cm.), the viola would require a body half as long again as the violin’s (c.53cm.).” Compromised for human arm lengths, the viola’s sound does not project strongly. Instead of “shouting,” its forte is more subtle, darker, warmer, and inward looking. Regarded by many as Walton’s first work in a mature style, the Viola Concerto makes a virtue of the instrument’s deep and soulful sound. The scoring skillfully avoids covering the soloist and is full of inventive contrapuntal touches. Using his new viola made by Frank Ravatin of Vannes, France, Jonathan Bagg’s plangent solo line was by turns achingly lyrical or rhythmically urgent. His intonation was secure whether soaring exposed in the viola’s highest register, early in the first movement, or basking in its lower range, early in the second. There are striking pairings, such as viola melodies set against quiet but insistent tremolos from the cello section or contrasted against quietly played muted trombones or trumpets, which yielded arresting tone colors. After a mostly sprightly third movement, Bagg’s mastery was given full scope in the extended epilogue, in which he seamlessly sailed across the viola’s full compass, from its highest notes down to its rich and mellow lower range, giving a “full throated” sound.

Davidson described the ending of Vaughan William’s Symphony No. 5, in D, as perhaps “the closest thing we have in music to what redemption sounds like.” Is there anything more moving than the sound of the horns’ haunting fanfare theme floating disembodied over the top sustained note breathed by the lower strings that opens the work? Based on recordings and one live performance by André Previn and the LSO heard decades ago, I thought the Duke horns were marginally too loud as they played this magical opening, but otherwise the performance was wonderfully blended and controlled and the dynamics were perfect when the ensemble repeated the theme a number of times. The string choirs skirted the edge of their chops but weathered the challenges manfully, maintaining good sectional discipline most of the time. Baldwin’s acoustics flattered the full, rich sounds of the cellos and violas, and the three double basses did the best they could to flesh out the sound. The violins managed a fine sheen much of the time. The haunting ending, a reprise of the opening that fades into silence, came off very well. The scherzo opened with ethereal strings and featured a racing flute figure, some robust work from the four trombones surrounded by swirling strings, and another fade to silence. The heart of the symphony is the long soulful slow movement, with shimmering harmonies of the chimerical strings and above all, long flowing melodies, sung on this occasion by the English horn of Rachel Titerence and oboe of Shelley Rusincovitch. Other fine solo turns were taken by Concertmaster Rahul Satija, principal horn Julien Finlay and principal violist Catherine Wu. The sound of principal cellist Ashley Price hovered briefly above her section in the last movement.