Maestro Alan Neilson led the Durham Symphony Orchestra in its annual salute to young artists at the unusual hour of 5:30 p.m. on March 14, in the Carolina Theatre. The orchestra’s substantial string section – 46 string players were listed in the published roster – and strong winds and brass were in generally good form for the perhaps overly-generous program, which consumed 2-1/4 hours, by the time the last announcements and presentations had been made.

The concert began with the National Anthem, and by the time it ended, most members of the audience had located the illuminated ensign, deep in the stage-right box. Brahms’ “Academic Festival” Overture was next; with its mix of old university drinking songs at the end, it’s an always-welcome offering from our local orchestras, and it was played it with distinction. Three Russian works ensued, starting with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, in its 1919 incarnation. This is the most accessible of the master’s Big Three ballets, yet it has not been played to death hereabouts, so it, too, was welcome on this occasion. The Overture to Prince Igor received a truly radiant reading that showed the best the DSO has to offer and then some – indeed, I think it was the finest single performance I have heard from this orchestra, the life of which I have been privileged to enjoy from its earliest days, when it was led by Vincent Simonetti. The Overture was listed as by Borodin, and Anne Aitchison’s otherwise outstanding program notes underscored that misattribution: the piece is without question the work of Alexander Glazunov who, with Rimksy-Korsakov, pulled the opera together from the scraps left by Borodin.

After the intermission (which was lengthened by various spoken credits and a plea for support), Prokofiev’s charming “Peter and the Wolf” received a charming reading. It’s sort of a who’s who and what’s what in the orchestra, akin in that respect to Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide.” Its lack of political correctness was evident to some – the wolf is a gourmand who swallows the duck whole (and uncooked, too), there are no women in the story, the animal rights people would have a field day about the wolf (although at least he is not slaughtered), the Grossvater is not the kindest soul when it comes to dragging Peter into the compound and locking the gate, the hunters may seem to be practitioners of gun violence (although that’s what hunters do….), etc., etc. WCPE’s David Ballantyne, casually attired, narrated the piece competently, and the performance was warmly received.

Then, at last, the two winners of the DSO’s 2003-4 Young Artists’ Competition came to the fore. Nancy Wang, a junior at East Chapel Hill High School and currently a student of Gregory McCallum, played the first movement of Schumann’s somewhat rambling Piano Concerto, using a fine-sounding Mason & Hamlin instrument. Neilson has always been a superior accompanist, and he showed his skills in this performance, providing well-meshed support to the artist, whose playing was outstanding throughout. It was a treat to hear such good balance between the soloist and the band.

Then exchange student Lucie Cizkova, from the Czech Republic, currently a senior at Raleigh’s Enloe High School and a student of John Ruggero, played the first movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. It was the second area performance of this movement in the Triangle in two weeks – see comments on the other one, which also featured stellar playing from harpist Emily Laurance – and it was welcome, too, but Cizkova’s playing was so fine it was frustrating that she and the DSO didn’t go on to play the rest of it.

The DSO did nearly everything right, including presenting bouquets and plaques. Bravo for that. There were however several drawbacks. The shell used by the orchestra gave undue prominence to the tuba (played, for the record, by founding conductor Simonetti). The program itself was, in retrospect, one number too long. And the guest narrator, whose appearance came just before the two pianists, and who was brought back after they received their plaques at the end of the show, stole entirely too much thunder from Wang and Cizkova, who should have had the spotlight entirely to themselves.