As we’ve been saying for some time, Harry Davidson, Music Director of the Duke Symphony Orchestra, is doing some remarkable things over at the Great Gothic Rockpile’s East Campus. His orchestra, which now consists entirely of students and a limited number of faculty members (but no outsiders), continues to expand, and on the evening of February 20, there was a stage-full of folks in Baldwin Auditorium–77 names were in the published roster, and 48 of ’em are string players. This is easily twice the number of people who were in the program when Davidson landed here several years ago. Attendance at the Duke SO’s concerts is up, too.

Davidson’s an engaging conductor who is building an engaging group that seems to improve every time we hear it. His plan embraces having his orchestra play works that will hone its various skills and selecting music that concurrently enhances the players’ awareness of some of the most important pieces in the literature. This year’s programs center on opera and other music by opera composers – which, come to think of it, encompasses a whole lot of potential repertoire. The orchestra began its portion of the program with a bracing reading of the Overture to Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. The brasses were a bit brash at the outset and the horn choir ensemble was not without blemishes, but those strings sounded amazingly good and for the most part the Frenchman’s exciting romp received a wonderful account. The musicians were clearly playing from all their hearts, collectively, and that went a long way toward compensating for what were, in the wash, mostly minor problems.

Sophomore pianist Carrie Kim was one of the Duke SO’s concerto competition winners this year; unlike some other groups, this orchestra is featuring its slate of top performers throughout the season. She did an impressive job with the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto No. 21. Her biography is extensive, resembling some big-name professionals, so it was no great surprise that her technique is outstanding. Her musicianship must surely have improved at Duke, too, where she is studying with Randall Love. The performance included an extended cadenza by Alfred Schnittke that rambled a bit but was handsomely realized. The support the young Korean soloist enjoyed from the orchestra was good, overall, and some minor lapses in ensemble did not discourage the crowd from giving her and the band a big ovation.

The concert ended with both suites from Bizet’s Carmen, reordered and conflated in a manner that made musical if not dramatic sense. (For example, an orchestration of the children’s chorus from early in Act I – so the kids can get home and go to bed – was the penultimate number in this performance.) The playing was very fine – fine enough that if one had heard this group in the pit of any regional opera company, with stage business and singing and such going on (it happens in staged operas!), it is likely that no one in attendance would have fussed very much. There were some truly outstanding solo bits, and in this music there are lots of solo bits. It is clear that Davidson has attracted some excellent young players in the brass and woodwind sections, along with all those strings. Things are definitely continuing to look up at Duke.

As if building a fine orchestra consisting mostly of students weren’t enough, Davidson and his players are reaching out into the community, too. There is an ongoing relationship with the Suzuki program at R.N. Harris Arts/Core Knowledge Magnet School, and on this occasion fourteen of the youngsters and their teacher, Ann Bauer, were on hand to play three short pieces with the Duke SO. These were arranged by three Duke students from the class of ’02-Janet Ou, Benjamin Crawford and Joyce Kung, who seems to be the ringleader of the Harris support program. The young players marched onstage and lined up in front of the Duke SO, and Davidson led the whole bunch, assisted by Bauer, in “America the Beautiful,” a minuet by Bach, and the very saucy “Orange Blossom Special” by Ervin T. Rouse. All were pleasing but perhaps the most important thing about this ongoing relationship is the spirit and enthusiasm the program engenders among the young players–and among the Duke students, too.

The orchestra will conclude its year of mostly operatic excerpts, which have centered primarily on Mozart, with two complete, semi-staged presentations of Don Giovanni, featuring professional singers with whom Davidson has worked, over the years. These are planned for the evening of April 12 and the afternoon of April 14. Based on what Davidson has accomplished here thus far, either (or both) should be worth hearing. See our calendar a bit later for complete details.