Sometimes, the creation of music in undergraduate orchestras – even at places like Duke University – resembles the making of sausage, which is to say that the less known about the process – and what goes into it – the better. One could have gleaned that impression here and there during the Duke Symphony Orchestra’s second concert of the season, presented in Baldwin Auditorium on the university’s East Campus on the evening of December 6. The program was titled “Celebrating the Birthday Boys” – Mozart and Shostakovich, of course. Music Director and Conductor Harry Davidson made some good picks for this last gasp of the anniversary years of both creative geniuses; the lineup highlighted Mozart’s debt to Bach with the fine Adagio and Fugue in c minor, K.546, and his debt to Haydn and older Italian forms with the Sinfonia concertante in E Flat, K.364. The second half of the program was devoted to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, which is sufficiently unique that it doesn’t seem to be indebted to much of anything.

The Duke SO has grown to an ensemble of 98, including 67 strings (on the published roster). There were a few more than that on the stage, best as we could tell. Even stripping away the winds and brass for the Adagio and Fugue, this left a healthy number of souls on the platform. This opening number grew into a piece for string quartet, but having a whole string section play it has some merit. Indeed, years ago, before the purists came close to messing up music beyond recognition, all the big maestri liked to show off the skills of their men (they were 99.9% men back then…) by doing precisely what Davidson did in Baldwin on this occasion. It worked amazingly well. There were some minor ensemble issues but no member of the audience could have missed Mozart’s several points. So far, so good.

There was more of the same in the big Sinfonia concertante, a work that even some of those heavy-hitting maestri alluded to above found troubling. To tell the truth, it’s hard to bring it off successfully. The first movement is disproportionately large, as if Mozart wasn’t quite sure when to stop. But with soloists like Eric Pritchard, violin, and Jonathan Bagg, viola, both of the Ciompi Quartet, it was a shame it ended when it did, so inspired and inspiring was the solo work – to the audience, for sure, and also, one suspects, to the members of the Duke SO. Not only is this hard to bring off, it’s just plain hard, too, in the sense of difficult, and with lots of exposure along the way. The performance had a lot going for it. The opening and closing movements worked fairly well, although they probably could have benefited from “one more rehearsal….” The sublime slow movement was almost totally successful, which is really something, when you think about it – especially given that there are no undergrad music majors at Duke…. This listener happens to think that an ever so slightly more brisk pace would have made a huge difference in overall ensemble in the Andante, but that would have come at the expense of expressiveness from the soloists.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is a great work for young musicians, for it teaches music and ensemble skills and history, all at once. It has a bit of everything in it, including a seriously percussive piano part, and there are lots of opportunities for section heads to shine. There was a lot of shining, along with some less than happy solo bits, most of which probably reflected nerves or pressure or both a good deal more than lack of technical expertise. It’s probably safe to say that most members of the band were playing this symphony for the first time and that – over time – it will remain for them one of their great musical experiences. Based on the cheers and applause, it was that for the audience, too. Remember, the Russians were our friends and then our enemies and then our friends and then our enemies and are now our friends, sort of, and Shostakovich lived through a lot of those shifts in our relationships. His music seems certain to last, whatever the political mood may be at any given time, and we’re all the richer for it.

The Duke SO returns on Valentine’s Day. See our calendar in mid-January for details.

The Ciompi Quartet has engagements this Friday (12/8) and this Sunday (12/10). See our calendar now for details of those appearances.

PS There were excellent program notes by orchestra members Cheryl Ho (class of 2008) and Talya Liebermann (class of 2007).