On January 13, the evening that was supposed to be its first rehearsal of the second semester, the Duke Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director and Conductor Harry Davidson, gave in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium its concert entitled “Brahms, the Heir of Beethoven,” originally scheduled for December 4, the evening of the ice storm, postponed to December 7, and then postponed again due to the storm’s aftereffects. The printed program distributed was the one prepared for the original date, and it is not certain if all 76 of the personnel listed were present on stage, but it is known that the musicians were away from the music for nearly six weeks and were able to have only one complete run-through prior to the evening’s warm-up.

The program included only two works: Beethoven’s Symphony 2, dating from 1801-02, and Brahms’ Double concerto, dating from 1887, with an intermission separating them. In his opening comments that replaced written notes absent from the program, the conductor avowed the Beethoven to be one of his favorite works in the entire repertoire – not what you expect to hear a conductor say, because it is not one of the all-time “biggies” that so many aspire to conduct. He also related the incident in Brahms’ career that gave rise to the remark that provided the title of the concert. Davidson conducted the Beethoven without a score, demonstrating clearly that the work is a part of his being. The opening movement that he described as Haydn-esque was energetic, the lyricism of the second was well milked, the third movement scherzo was nice and crisp, and the fourth movement advanced in an almost headlong manner.

For the Brahms, featuring violinist Hsaio-mei Ku and cellist Fred Raimi of the Ciompi Quartet as soloists, Davidson used a score. In his introductory comments, he characterized this final work of Brahms’ oeuvre involving an orchestra as “a look backward” to works such as Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, a repertoire which had not been in favor or augmented since Beethoven’s time. He also related the genesis of the work, the attempt to heal the rift that had developed between the composer and his longtime friend Joseph Joachim, for whom the violin part was written (the cello part was written for Viennese cellist Robert Hausmann, and Brahms conducted the première). The orchestra provided solid backup to the soloists who gave outstanding performances, although the acoustics of the hall kept Ku’s sound from seeming as full as it usually is. Together, they gave full measure to the hugeness of the opening Allegro that Davidson mentioned, made the “ravishingly beautiful” Andante second movement rich and lush, and the final Vivace non troppo, with its Hungarian overtones almost inevitable with Brahms, dancingly upbeat. The audience was enthusiastic; flowers were offered to the soloists, to whom Davidson self-effacingly deferred, and in an especially lovely gesture, Ku offered her bouquet to the concertmistress.

The performances were impressive – an acquaintance in the hall described them as “triumphant” – far better than one has any right to expect from a student ensemble. While they were not entirely without blemish – an errant note, an occasional slightly ragged entrance because not all players were absolutely together – all the missteps can easily be ascribed to the circumstances of the performance rather than to the quality of the musicians, individually or as an ensemble. Davidson has, over the three and one half years that he has led the group, built it up both in size and in quality.

Davidson is a fine conductor, in all appearances particularly good with an orchestra of this nature. His style is clear and precise; he gives good cues and dynamic gestures to the sections and to the whole. He is energetic, putting his entire body into the job, yet without excessive flailing of arms or jumping up in the air. He seems to treat his players as if they are pros, in a positive, encouraging manner, and they obviously respond accordingly. This reviewer hopes that the students, most of whom are not music majors, realize and appreciate the privilege they have in playing under his leadership and in performing difficult major classics of the repertoire such as these. He also hopes that they will keep music in their lives as they pursue their careers in other fields upon graduation. Their caliber would certainly suggest that they should.