Duke Symphony Orchestra Music Director Harry Davidson can always be counted on for enterprising programs, and his selection of an all-Samuel Barber menu was no exception. Davidson fielded a substantial orchestra on the stage of Baldwin Auditorium on the East Duke Campus. All the pieces except one brief excerpt, appropriate for the season, were from Barber’s early compositional career, 1936-47.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini was notorious for not programming or commissioning new works by American composers. For the conductor’s first season with the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra, he had asked his organizing assistant, Artur Rodzinski, to recommend some American composers. The Polish conductor recommended Barber, who composed his First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12 (1937), in response to the Italian conductor’s request for a short work. Despite lack of feedback from Toscanini, both Op. 12 and a string-orchestra arrangement of the Adagio from Barber’s String Quartet were played the following season. Barber essentially created the essay form in which a single melodic idea is developed within a relatively short work. Many of Barber’s melodies share with Johannes Brahms a bittersweet, melancholy quality. The First Essay’s theme begins in the lower strings before passing to the upper strings and horns. The contrapuntal middle section leads to a rushing climax flowed by an ambiguous, quiet ending. Davidson’s musicians played with very good unity within sections and produced good string tone. The bass line was solid and there was some fine, subtle trumpet playing and a secure horn solo. Dynamics and phrasing were well judged. Orchestra sections were in good balance.

After the non-string players left the stage, Davidson led a beautifully paced performance of the very well-known Adagio. His huge string orchestra produced a full, rich sound, and his tempo choices allowed plenty of room for the music to breathe and register in the hall.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915. for voice and orchestra, was commissioned in 1947 by Eleanor Steber; it sets a text by the American writer James Agee. The poetry and music convey remembrance of a sultry summer evening in the South in the time before air-conditioning when people sat on shady porches or ambled about taking the air. Kudos go to Davidson for including the full text in the program. With recordings and microphones, there is no difficulty in following the text but such has never been the case in any live performance I have heard including this otherwise fine one. Jung Eun Oh is currently a doctoral candidate at the Cleveland Institute of Music where Davidson is Music Director and Conductor of Opera. Soprano Oh has an even and warm-toned voice with superb intonation. Her diction was at least as good as any fully professional singer I have heard do Knoxville, but the words were only 100% clear in snatches, maybe 40% overall. Her tone ably blended with the languid tone and rhythm portrayed by Barber’s economical and spare orchestration. There were fine brief solos from concertmistress Ashley Chang but a burble marred a horn solo.

A selection from Die Natali, Op. 37 (1960), proved apt for the Christmas season. According to a letter to conductor Eugene Ormandy, Barber felt this series of preludes based on well-known carols was uneven. It was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Davidson selected the Chorale Prelude on “Silent Night,” which Barber thought was the best of the set. The Duke musicians gave a solid performance and it was delightful to follow the metamorphosis of the carol as it was taken up or combined with different sections.

Three decades ago when I began collecting classical recordings, there were only two available recordings of Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1941). One was an early stereo LP by Isaac Stern on Columbia, and the other was a budget LP on Westminister by Ivry Gitlis. Live performances in our region were rare until the last decade when a number of violinists — Elmar Oliveira, Joshua Bell, James Ehnes, Hilary Hahn, Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg, and others — have taken it up, and Archivmusic now lists 34 CDs! I have lost track of how many times it has been played within the Triad and Triangle alone.

Most recording and concert program notes give a confused and erroneous account of the original commission by businessman Samuel Fels for violinist Iso Briselli, a contemporary and fellow student of Barber at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Previous accounts incorrectly state Briselli had not liked the first two movements and had rejected the commission. A reader of my last Barber Violin Concerto review of a Carolina Chamber Symphony performance with Andy Simionescu (May 12, 2005) forwarded CVNC a link that gives exhaustive information based on access to the papers and letters of Fels and Barber. Brisilli was pleased with the first two movements but rejected the work because he felt the brief third movement was too lightweight. The concerto was premiered in February 1941 in Philadelphia by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Eugene Ormandy.

The Violin Concerto is in three movements. The first movement opens with a brief cadenza by the piano embedded within the orchestra, introducing the bare, brilliant octaves that eventually become the prominent theme of the movement. After rich development by the soloist and sections, a showy violin cadenza leads to a lyric coda. An extended oboe solo opens the bittersweet second movement, in which the violin enters with what program annotator Bobby Cieri (Duke Class of 2011) calls “a contrasting and rhapsodic theme.” The short finale is a whirlwind and brilliant perpetuum mobile.  Eric Pritchard, leader of the Duke University-based Ciompi Quartet, was a confident and idiomatic interpreter of the solo part. He played with considerable brilliance and passion, producing a full, warm tone, precise high notes, and clean harmonics. Davidson’s mostly student musicians produced a kaleidoscopic range of color in Barber’s spare and superb orchestration. They conveyed the gossamer quality of the middle movement particularly well. The beautifully sustained oboe solo was played by Kevin Kwok. Fine horn solos were played by Ryan Elefsen. This was a very satisfying performance of Barber’s delightful Concerto for Violin.