Thematic programming can be far less restrictive than it sometimes appears. For the Duke Symphony Orchestra’s latest offering, given in Baldwin Auditorium on February 23, Maestro Harry Davidson picked three venerable scores by two great Russian masters — Glinka and Mussorgsky — two of which were given in orchestrations by other masters, one Russian and one French. The program was dubbed “Riveting Russians,” and the riveters were composers, not ship-repair experts left over from the yards of Murmansk….

The Duke SO is a prime example of a superior town-&-gown orchestra, although it’s mostly “gown” — students, primarily, with some faculty types tossed in. That’s helpful, because having the ivy-covered ones work alongside younger players helps break down traditional barriers between “the profs” and the students. The Duke SO is also a substantial and growing ensemble that, on this occasion, fielded 58 strings and other sections in appropriate numbers. For the most part, the resulting sound was solid and well-unified.

Things got underway with a likely suspect, Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila Overture, a work played hereabouts fairly often but that was almost certainly “new” to many of the musicians. Glinka was the first of the great Russian nationalists, although some of his music sounds distinctly European. Davidson paced the piece nicely, and the orchestra delivered it with considerable spirit if not total unanimity.

Baritone Brian Johnson has sung here before, and it was a treat to hear him essay the great Mussorgsky cycle, Songs and Dances of Death. His voice is clear and ringing, and he sailed over the orchestra in most parts of the four-song set, although the last one, which is martial and dramatic, could have stood a bit less brass and percussion or a bit more voice. In this one, if not the others, having Johnson step to the front of the platform would surely have helped.

The cycle was performed in an orchestral version by Shostakovich, so there were in effect three distinguished Russian masters on the program. Those of us who grew up with Christoff’s great recording will recall that it involved orchestrations by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shostokovich’s version is quite different, much darker, and contains many passages that sound like Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky’s best-known opera). Johnson isn’t Christoff, and he shouldn’t try to be. His interpretation was more psychological than visceral, and it worked extremely well. He sang in Russian, paying close attention to the words (and sometimes holding his music very high); translations were provided. The band played well, giving hope for the concert’s grand finale.

There were fine program notes by Ian Carlos Han, Class of ’05, whose work we’ve praised on previous occasions, but a major error crept into the section on the Songs, for these pieces didn’t wait till 1962 for their premiere — that’s when Shostakovich’s version was done. They’ve been around for a long, long time in their original voice-with-piano incarnation, and the aforementioned orchestrations are a bit long in the tooth, too. Out of curiosity, I looked up some other recordings (beyond Christoff’s), and the earliest one I found — of “Trepak,” the third song (which is sometimes used to start the cycle) — was made in 1921, by Chaliapin, with an orchestra.

The concluding work was Mussorgsky’s famous Pictures at an Exhibition. Like the Songs, this wasn’t orchestrated by its composer. Many have taken shots at it, but the best known and arguably most successful version is Ravel’s, and that is what was played. Mussorgsky, like Mozart, is an “m” word, and I’ve recently written about Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, saying it separates sheep from goats. There aren’t any goats in the Duke SO, really, and come to think of it I am not sure about sheep, either, but Ravel’s version of Pictures is one of our most celebrated orchestral showpieces, and biggies like Reiner and Cantelli and Toscanini (working backward through recorded history) have left major marks with the score. It’s tough, and it was brave of the Duke SO to attempt it, and it had its many fine moments, but there were also more than a few probs. After some ups and downs early on and mid-stream, however, things began to jell, and the grand finale — two famous sections, actually — worked quite nicely, building to a big climax that was rewarded with considerable enthusiasm by the good-sized crowd, which included at least four music critics and a fifth one (our own Jeffrey Rossman) in the cello section. If we put things into perspective, then, it’s all to the good, for fledgling artists (of all ages) have to play tough pieces in order to grow, and that’s commendable, all by itself — but these pictures weren’t quite ready for the art gallery.

The Duke SO’s next concert features more Russian fare — Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with Rahul Satija, the orchestra’s brilliant concertmaster, as soloist — along with works by Bartók and Dvorák. The concert is April 13, in the same venue. Details are in our series listings.