What promised to be a special event, a rare performance by the North Carolina Symphony on the Duke campus turned out to be a disappointment on a chilly October night. The drawing card was the Concert-Piece for four horns and orchestra Op. 86 by Robert Schumann, which came last. Unfortunately, the rest of the program had very little to recommend. Maestro Llewellyn opened the evening with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik of Mozart, K. 525. To program this piece without having something different to say in its interpretation – and the evening’s reading sounded bright, unsubtle, non-toxic, but also non-nourishing, a digestible filler requiring no rehearsal – seems to indicate a certain laziness. Why not bring something new – a Mendelssohn string symphony, CPE Bach, Stamitz – rather than rehashing a work already several steps beyond overfamiliar?
The Britannic punctuality of the NCS in starting the evening left several dozen listeners waiting in the lobby through the Mozart, a move that will not build audiences in Durham (and it’s worth noting that the balcony was empty). Earlier this fall the presenters of the Takacs Quartet at Duke made a point of taking into account the difficulties of parking in the central Duke campus, with lines to get into the only parking facility, by delaying the start till concert-goers were seated.
Closing the first half was the early Serenade Op. 16 of Brahms, unusually scored for “Harmonie” (pairs of winds), plus violas, celli and basses. The winds take the leading function usually occupied by the violins. The acoustics of Page were far less flattering to the ensemble than its usual home in Meymandi in Raleigh, with the lack of an acoustic shell having an impact on blend, with some difficult moments in the sustained work of the central Adagio, where the clarinets in particular were strident.
After intermission came the twelve Contradances, WoO 14, of Beethoven, nugatory trifles scored for violins, celli, basses and winds (I began to wonder if the program was built around rehearsal schedules rather than artistic considerations, with each of the first three works lacking a section). These might be pleasant for drive-time, but to actually buy a ticket to listen to these nothings seems over the top. They were greeted by feeble applause, as they merited.
Finally the Schumann arrived, the first and only truly symphonic work on the program, and it received a rousing performance from hornists Brian Blanchard, Kimberly van Pelt, Christopher Caudill, and Rachel Niketopoulos, worth waiting for, but which also heightened the sense of lightness in the programming.
I also came away with a renewed sense that Page is a far from adequate facility, lacking charm, grace, beauty, any refined esthetic sense (the proscenium arch painted a battleship gray, the former windows filled with unlovely acoustic tile), and the acoustics nothing more than mediocre. The whole effect is simply shabby. In comparison to the luxury and beauty of the new buildings along Science Drive, such a facility for the arts makes a statement, and one which I hope Duke would not like to be making.