By any measure – for professional or conservatory orchestras – the program selected by Music Director Harry Davidson for the December 3 concert for the Duke University Symphony Orchestra was very ambitious as well as imaginative. The theme of the program, played in Baldwin Auditorium, was death as seen through “World Redemption, World Transfiguration.” In introductory remarks, Bryan Gilliam, Duke’s resident Strauss specialist, addressed these issues in the two related works by the composer, “Tod und Verklärung” (“Death and Transfiguration”) and Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). He also had the orchestra play important thematic excerpts from both works.

As dramatic proof of the close relationship between the two Strauss works, Davidson directed them without pausing between them. As the first work ended, soprano soloist Stephanie Northcutt slipped between the two violin sections to stand by the conductor for the songs. In both works, the ensemble within the large string sections – there were nearly forty violins – was often remarkable, especially the violins. The large viola section and fairly plush cello section helped offset the fact that only three double basses were present. Brass, particularly the six horns were often surprisingly good, blending well and never wildly off the mark. The woodwinds were very good. Outstanding in their solo roles were Concertmaster Rahul Satijia and English horn player Shelley Rusincovitch. Northcutt’s diction was excellent and she had a pleasing vocal color and even line.

We heard the rehearsal before the performance and thought that she more strongly projected the text then. Either the orchestra played louder in the performance or she just did not make her voice soar over the orchestra as much, so too often she was imbedded within its texture. “Im Abendrot” (“In Twilight”), our favorite, was the most successful song. In the others, parts of stanzas were almost swamped. Much of her performance was fine, so it was too bad that her projection was wanting.

Closely related to the focus on death was the mood of the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This score for strings and harp showed off the young musicians to the best advantage. Much of the time the violin sections produced the fine sheen of a conservatory-trained group as they maintained unusually tight ensemble. The large viola section added extra richness, as did the cellos, most of the time. The double basses did all they could. The harpist was excellent. Davidson’s shaping of this emotionally charged movement seemed ideal.

It is unfortunate that the student musicians are not available on New Year’s Eve, for Davidson proved to be a “natural” interpreter of music by the “Waltz King,” Johann Strauss, Jr. A perfectly paced “Emperor Waltz,” Op. 437, ended the formal program with just the right amount of rubato. After lengthy applause, acknowledgement of soloists, various thank-you’s and “family news,” the audience was invited to join in with lusty clapping for the traditional Viennese concert ending, the “Radetzky March.”