The Duke Symphony Orchestra has benefited greatly from the salutary presence these past five years of Music Director Harry Davidson, who single-handedly (well, maybe with both hands) has rejuvenated the orchestra and built it back up to its size and quality of yore, during the heyday of Allan H. Bone. He’s wrought this remarkable thingling (to borrow a word from Ogden Nash) by concentrating on the basics. This season, he’s done a “Sympathetic Spirits” program of music by Schubert, Mozart and Bruckner, a “World Redemption, World Transfiguration” program (Richard Strauss and J. Strauss II, sandwiching Mahler), and, on February 18, a concert titled “American Spring” that centered, mostly, on American works. Still to come are two semi-staged performances of Rossini’s Il barbieri di Sigivlia, in April. There’s a fee for tickets for the opera, to help defray the costs of the professional soloists he’s bringing in, as he did two years ago for Don Giovanni, but the other concerts have been free.

The roster published with the program for the recent Baldwin Auditorium concert listed around 80 musicians, mostly students but augmented by a few faculty people – pianist David Heid*, harpist Emily Laurance, and bassist John Brown – and some townies, too – including cellist Jeffrey Rossman, who writes for CVNC when he’s not actually making music. Thus the Duke SO is what is often called a “town & gown” group, similar to the UNCSO and the two orchestras – the Raleigh Civic Symphony and the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra – based at NCSU. These “big three” institutions (and others, elsewhere in our state) benefit from the reinforcement offered by professionally-trained adults, particularly when they play instruments that aren’t readily available among the students, and the students benefit by working alongside people for whom music isn’t merely a crib course to help augment that GPA but instead represents a life-long commitment. Now truth to tell, one must sometimes make allowances, ’cause these bands are not the Berlin Phil. – but on the other hand, the NCS and our other NC orchestras aren’t either…. In recent columns we’ve talked about the importance of community orchestras and chamber music played by local artists. Our college and university orchestras play important roles in our musical society, too. Although jaded critics may wince at the thought of hearing yet another Tchaikovsky symphony or, as at Duke on this occasion, Copland’s “Buckaroo Holiday,” played by what some folks might consider to be “amateurs,” the music offered by the aforementioned groups is often varied, and it’s almost never selected by some marketing committee, because these programs are not “market-driven” (thank heavens!). And we need to bear in mind one other thing, too: at every concert, a NY Times critic observed not long ago, there are people who are hearing (or playing) a given work for the first time – and there are others who may be hearing (or playing) it for the last time…. The commercial papers pay these groups little heed, for reasons that we need not recount here. But, like our community orchestras and choirs and chamber groups, ad hoc or otherwise, the college and university groups merit attention, and attentive listeners can invariably find something to admire in the performances, even if it is just youthful enthusiasm!

At Duke, the American part of the program, which was most of it, had a very narrow compass, time-wise. The bit from Rodeo was composed in 1942, during a dark and troubling period, for our country and the world, when he went out of his way to celebrate the art and culture of the Americas. The performance was a bit out of control, bringing to mind one of those mechanical horses you can ride for a quarter in a really cheap roadside tavern, and Davidson actually looked like he was riding one of ’em at times, too. There was a longish pause, during which Anthony Kelley, the only native-born Tar Heel composer on the faculty of Duke’s Music Department, talked about George Walker, the first African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize (the PP having been something of an Old Boy’s Club prior to 1996 and – some would say – since then, too). Walker’s “Lyric” (1946) suggests Barber’s better-known Adagio in many respects. Both are string-orchestra versions of movements from string quartets. Both are slow. Both have several weighty climaxes, followed by what the Germans call “Luftpausen.” And both do nicely as memorial pieces, for which purpose Walker’s was actually written. The 50 strings of the Duke SO played “Lyric” radiantly.

After the intermission came the other American work, the orchestral suite Copland drew from his “Ballet for Martha [Graham],” Appalachian Spring (1944-5). The original is for a small group, and it has many exposed passages, some of which persist in the larger version. The results, technically, were somewhat mixed, but as one member of the audience said, what Copland did with “Simple Gifts” makes it all worthwhile – including, one would surmise, enduring some of the little glitches that another rehearsal or two might have resolved.

The first half ended with a non-American work, or part of one: Tasha Tanhehco, winner of last fall’s concerto competition (or audition) at Duke, played the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. It wasn’t her first time around with it – her bio reveals that she won the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra’s contest as a high school senior and played it there, in 1996. Do the math, and you may wonder why she’s at Duke, playing in a partly-student orchestra. She went from Buffalo to Yale, where she earned a BS ( cum laude ) in Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology, and she’s now a third-year med school student and a researcher in the Department of Ophthalmology. She’s played with the Duke SO for two years and currently serves as its Principal Second Violin. Her performance was warm, engaging, congenial, and collegial. It was almost devoid of the bravura display with which some players imbue it; instead, the rendition involved a large measure of carefully worked out ensemble playing between the soloist and the orchestra. But it is a violin concerto, so greater volume and better projection from the violin would doubtless have enhanced the overall effect.

Note; For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.