Harry Davidson has done a remarkable thing at Duke, building a great big orchestra in the span of a mere handful of seasons – and rebuilding it, too, every year, as many of its “senior” members leave their ivy-covered Durham confines to venture out into the real world. This year, with 99 musicians on the published roster, he’s giving UNC a run for its money in a way that may have parallels with the Rockpile’s basketball program but that is perhaps more meaningful to culture vultures in the greater community.

The Duke SO’s Music Director is big on themed programs, in large measure because, deftly done, they can be instructive to all concerned, but also because they can provide solid frameworks for instruction and for general music appreciation, too. This fall, the group visits England; in the spring, the concerts examine Russian and Central European fare.

The first program, given in Baldwin Auditorium on October 6, involved Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the Cello Concerto (made famous by Jacqueline du Pré), and the “Enigma” Variations – which, in a strange bit of programming overlap, also turns up on the UNCSO’s first concert of the season, on October 19.

The guest artists – the Ciompi Quartet and cellist Darrett Adkins – played together just five days earlier, on the opening concert of Duke’s resident string quartet’s season.

Davidson and his players are richly blessed to have an ensemble like the CQ in the same immediate vicinity to teach and coach and play for and with them, and it’s always a treat to hear the Compi artists, singly or together, in atypical settings, so much was riding on their performance with the orchestra. It was a delight in many ways, and the contributions of the guest artists were distinguished. Balance was not always good, but solo lines emerged well enough, most of the time. As noted in our recent review of the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, those who hear college and university-based groups must always bear in mind the time of the year, and it’s early in the term, so cohesion and ensemble and balance and the precision of attacks and releases will surely improve downstream. For now, the Introduction and Allegro gave pleasure and was warmly received by the fairly substantial audience.

I mentioned Du Pré in connection with the Cello Concerto, but it was Beatrice Harrison who made it her own – and recorded it, twice, with the composer on the podium. As it happened, I was long ago a guest of the Harrison family for a performance of the work in the Albert Hall that involved Du Pré, during a summer Proms season. It made an indelible impression, even though I’d known and loved the work for years before that, thanks to an early 10″ Lp played by Pini. With that background I must say that, despite the movies, this Concerto is a bit of an acquired taste, as indeed is most of Elgar’s music.

Adkins played the solo part nicely, expressively, and with considerable engagement and involvement, and Davidson tended to the orchestral part with great watchfulness. There were some lovely sections, and there were some places that didn’t go all that well, although there were no major train wrecks. From this writer’s perspective, the Concerto seemed a good deal more episodic than on previous occasions – and not only that long-ago London performance. It was a treat to hear it in this setting, given by a fine university band and with a notable soloist. But I’d like to hear Adkins do it again in ten or twenty years, after it’s steeped some more.

A friend told us that the Duke SO played some of the “Enigma” Variations at the inaugural concert for Duke’s new president; he noted that “size matters” and reported that the orchestra is so big that its members “…were falling off the stage.” That occasion probably helped the October 6 reading. It is a hard piece that can and often does give the pros fits, so under the circumstances it went remarkably well. It’s unfortunate that there were longer pauses between the variations than one normally encounters, because by its very nature – it’s a theme and 14 variations, the last of which doubles as a grand, glowing finale – it can easily seem segmented. Overall, there was much to admire, and the folks who bailed out at halftime should probably have stayed.

Kudos to Davidson for his fascinating programming, and to senior Ian Carlos Han for the excellent program notes. The next English concert (not to be confused with Duke Performances’ upcoming event, which has no English music on the program!) will be presented in the same venue on December 1. Violist Jonathan Bagg of the Ciompi Quartet will play Walton’s famous Concerto, not given here for more than a score of years, if memory serves, and the other works, by Vaughan Williams, will be Rhosymedre and the Fifth Symphony.