A crowd gathered on the lawn outside Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium on September 2, the Sunday before Labor Day, to watch the Duke Symphony Orchestra kick off the concert season with their annual Pops Concert. Pops concerts on Labor Day have been a tradition with the North Carolina Symphony and other ensembles for years, but while many groups have ceased to perform these outdoor offerings, the Duke Symphony Orchestra continues to keep the tradition alive.

Despite the threat of storms, there was a good turnout this year. By the time the concert began, the lawn was packed with people of all ages, picnic blankets, and lawn chairs. There was some uncertainty rippling through the crowd at first, due to the growing storm clouds in the distance, but when conductor Harry Davidson announced that the concert was not cancelled and would begin shortly, the crowd cheered. The music began as scheduled and the impending storm was forgotten. The attention of the audience was held for the duration of the performance by the variety-packed program and quality playing of the Duke Symphony Orchestra.

Made up of around a hundred students, the Duke Symphony Orchestra of 2018-219 had had their first (and only) rehearsal just the day before the concert. Their last-minute preparation was not evident in their performance quality. The strings played especially boldly and with exceptional articulation. The brass and woodwinds each had a moment or two of insecurity, but considering the group had played together only once, the overall performance was quite impressive.

The program itself was finalized rather last minute as well, but it was a thoughtfully designed with music very appropriate for such an event. The pieces selected appealed to the wide variety of ages, acknowledged the patriotism associated with Labor Day, and celebrated the greatness of some of our best-known composers.

Even young children were kept entertained by the orchestra’s performance of Elton John’s music from Lion King and Howard Shore’s score from Lord of the Rings. In fact, the Lord of the Rings medley was one of the longest arrangements played. Thankfully, the orchestra kept the piece interesting with their masterful observation of dynamics and adept changes of tone as the piece moved from the lilting melody associated with the Shire to the more tense melodies found in the action scenes of the movie.

As mentioned, the medley of songs Elton John composed for The Lion King was the other piece on the program chosen from a film score. In the words of Maestro Harry Davidson, the medley from The Lion King was included on for “the young and the young at heart.” Audience members of all ages smiled as the strings played Elton John’s well-known melodies as the bongos added familiar African flavor. Both the strings and the percussionist successfully captured the warmth of Elton John’s beloved song.

In addition to music from film scores, Davidson selected a variety of patriotic pieces, including John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes,” Morton Gould’s “American Salute,” and the famous “Simple Gifts” variations from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. These were effective pieces on the program, with some flashy brass solos and bold melodies. Children could be seen marching around in groups during “American Salute.” For “Stars and Stripes”, the last piece, Davidson encouraged the audience to clap along, and the audience readily participated.

Especially fitting for the concert that evening was the piece by Leroy Anderson called “Summer Skies.” The unsettling ascending and descending melodies making up the majority of the piece provided a vivid illustration of a stormy and unpredictable summer sky. The intonation of all sections was spot on and the phrasing, something very important to this piece, was masterfully done.

In addition to celebrating Labor Day and the start of the concert season, the musical world has recently celebrated Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. In honor of that celebration, the Duke Symphony Orchestra performed a medley of pieces from West Side Story. Davidson verbally captioned the piece with the phrase “wonderful melodies and wonderful memories.” The lengthy medley certainly showcased some wonderful melodies with each section of the orchestra having a chance to shine. The musicians played as if they were smiling, and the audience smiled back.

Also on the program was a medley of pieces by Gershwin, Johann Strauss II’s polka schnell “Auf der Jagd,” and the famous “Toreador Song” from Carmen by Georges Bizet – all impressive pieces, all impressively played.

Despite uncertain variables like the threatening weather and the limited preparation time, the Duke Symphony Orchestra’s Pops Concert of 2018 was a success. The variety of the program kept the audience engaged and the many musicians played confidently and skillfully. The event was a great start to the concert season and the caliber of the performance promises that Duke Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming events will be worth attending.

As planning for the forthcoming season comes together, look for Duke concerts in our calendar.