Harry is a true wizard. No, not Potter – Davidson

Duke University music faculty member Harry Davidson is now in his seventh year as Music Director and Conductor of the Duke Symphony Orchestra and his transformation of that body continues to be miraculous. The latest proof was the concert in Baldwin Auditorium on Wednesday, December 7, 2005.

Davidson’s programs are always ambitious and gratifyingly thematic, and this one proved no exception. Titled “Germane Germans,” the concert was a mini-survey of the German Romantic period, from early to late, with representative works by Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.

While such programming is a boon to area audiences, especially as the concerts are free, the real beneficiaries are the student musicians. Davidson’s thorough knowledge of the repertory and his firm grasp of the style and mood of each piece are obviously communicated to the players, who produce mature, well-rehearsed performances. This is all the more amazing since the orchestra is virtually all students, unlike many university orchestras that combine students, faculty and local citizens. The orchestra also is mostly volunteer (only freshmen are required to participate), with over a hundred players, an indication of Davidson’s magnetism and dedication.
The orchestra’s playing is generally so good that the occasional slip comes as a surprise. Davidson definitely challenges his musicians with meaty, difficult works, and it’s inspiring to watch these students “get it.”

The meatiest work on this program was Brahms’ First Symphony. Davidson immediately established the appropriate thickness and weight, pointing up each little crescendo and sudden drama. The tempos in the first movement were too deliberate in places and needed more momentum, a probable accommodation of the difficulty in maintaining precision at faster speeds. But the second movement was beautifully controlled, deeply mellow and serene, the cellos and basses supplying a smooth underlying drone. Concertmaster Rahul Satija played the violin solo with impressive tone and feeling. The woodwinds made their marks in the playful third movement, although the tempos again seemed more about clarity than interpretation.

All cavils were forgotten, however, in the glorious final movement. Davidson called up all the right grandeur, especially for the emotion-laden main theme. Here the brass choir was heavenly and the strings richly blended. The momentum was perfectly set for that inevitable rush to the finale. This was a fine performance, especially from such a young set of players. Any in the audience who were unfamiliar with the piece truly heard Brahms that night.

The concert’s first half offered three short works, each in a different vein. Weber’s Overture to the opera Oberon is a great program opener, with its catchy melodies, perky rhythms and dramatic shifts, all of which Davidson highlighted with good dynamic control and precise cueing, marred only by some smeary string tone and several horn blats.

Faculty member and pianist Randall Love joined the players for two contrasting works. Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Brillant” in E-flat Major is similar to the allegro movements of his piano concertos in its breezy tempo and sunny disposition as well as its difficulty for the soloist. Love supplied an agreeable lightness of touch and tone, but his use of a printed score seemed to keep his performance from breaking free into the abandoned joy that such a piece requires. Davidson and the orchestra provided attentive, buoyant accompaniment.

Schumann’s “Introduction and Allegro appassionato” in G Major does not ask for as much brilliant technique as the Mendelssohn but requires more interpretative skill, especially with its repetitive structure. Love and Davidson gave the Introduction marvelous mood, with its placid waves and dreamy waftings, but once into the Allegro, both encountered problems. Love was again hindered by the use of a score, seemingly more determined to get through the notes rather than to find distinctive ways to vary each return of thematic phrase. Davidson and his players also seemed to be “getting through,” the shape and the feel of the piece lost in the process.

Nonetheless, the concert was an overall success, capped by the Brahms. Such satisfying performances should have larger audiences (especially at these prices!). Concertgoers can look forward to the Duke Symphony’s year-long celebration of Mozart in 2006, including a semi-staged performance of The Marriage of Figaro in April.