Duke Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of music director Harry Davidson, performed an outstanding concert in Baldwin Auditorium. The orchestra, comprised mostly of Duke students plus a few friends and faculty, was rich in strings; the program listed 18 first violins, 17 second violins, 8 violas, 18 cellos and 6 basses. Not surprisingly, this concert featured selections that made rich and glorious use of strings.

The concert began with Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture from Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Had it been composed 30 or 40 years later it would have been described as a tone poem. It was inspired by two poems by Goethe and is programmatically descriptive. We may think of calm seas as a positive situation for a journey by boat. However in the days before steam, calm seas were a disaster for travelers. Mendelssohn therefore opens his overture with a calm, somber section. Eventually the flute (Ji-Eun Choi) announces activity, and the journey begins with more active music from the strings and the woodwinds, eventually arriving at destination with a fanfare from the trumpets (Philipp Popp, Jasmine Leahy, and Kathy Silbiger).

The orchestra was in fine form throughout with smooth transitions, effective use of dynamics, and a singing lyrical presentation.

Next on the program was Benjamin Britten’s astonishing Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31, composed in 1943 for his life partner, Peter Pears, and their friend, the phenomenal French horn master, Dennis Brain. It is a setting of six poems: “Pastoral” by Charles Cotton (1630-1687), “Nocturne” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), “Elegy” by William Blake (1757-1827), “Dirge,” Anonymous (15th century), “Hymn” by Ben Johnson (1572-1637) and “Sonnet” by John Keats (1795-1821).

In the first place, the horn is probably the most difficult orchestral instrument to play. The muscles of an embouchure about the size of a penny are asked to control the sound of some 30 feet of coiled tubing. Add to that Britten’s fiendishly difficult score with leaps of an octave and more covering the full range of the horn. And then there is the tenor part, also extremely demanding. The string orchestra does not escape the challenges of Britten’s difficult score, too. Anytime this work is programmed, you know you are going to hear a virtuosic performance – for there is no other way to do it – and so it was.

The tenor soloist was Timothy Culver, a popular performing artist in the Cleveland and general Great Lakes area. Since 2002, he has been Assistant Professor of Voice at the Hugh A. Glauser School of Music at Kent State University. The French horn soloist was Nicholas Kinney who is assistant professor of horn at Southeast Missouri State University. Of course, the strings of the Duke SO were under the direction of Maestro Davidson.

The opening “Prologue” and the closing “Epilogue” were both solos for the horn alone, the closing one played (hauntingly) offstage. Each of the poems were given unique and awesome settings by Britten. For example, “Dirge,” the fourth, began with the tenor singing alone. Gradually the strings added an intricate accompaniment with challenging rhythms playing against each other. The horn joined in the foray with a dark fanfare and then backed off. The strings grew softer until just the basses remained with their jolting rhythm, and the tenor ended the verse alone.

“Hymn” was a rollicking hunt with horn, tenor, and strings all romping through the landscape. Keats “Sonnet” was a solo for the tenor with string accompaniment. It was an exquisite expression of grief. Britten’s uncanny matching of the tonal qualities of the music with the meaning of the poetry and his excellent and intimate knowledge of the voice contribute to the unique pleasure of hearing this piece.

But the best was yet to come. The Duke SO’s performance of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Op. 36 was fantastic sonic accomplishment. The strings sung with a silken warmth. The balance and interweaving of sections was remarkable. Solo work by violist Noah Martin, cellist Michelle Lou, and clarinetist Neel Prabhu stood out.

Of the fourteen variations, No. IX& “Nimrod” is the most popular and widely known and admired. It was played with remarkable passion. The lively variations, No. VII “Troyte,”and No. X “Arabella” (the stuttering variation) were both delightful and accomplished. In variation No. XIII designated by “***” which represents the lady who is on a cruise, the clarinet quotes a phrase from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, which reminded us that the theme of this concert was “Music for Friends” which was certainly the case with the Enigma Variations and with Britten’s “Serenade,” and now this established a link with the Mendelssohn piece.

All in all, this was one of the finest concerts I have heard from the Duke Symphony Orchestra over many years. Later this spring Davidson will lose a number of outstanding musicians to graduation. Few if any will move in the direction of professional careers in music, but they will surely enrich the communities wherever their career choice takes them. And next year a fresh class of students who know something about the power and joy that music offers to them will join Davidson’s ensemble. For the next four years, they’ll dig deeper into the amazing treasures of the classical repertoire and delight us with what they find there and then move on.