The Duke Symphony Orchestra turned to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams for its second offering of the season as Harry Davidson, marking his 10th year at the helm, conducted the "Norfolk Rhapsody," the Songs of Travel, and the Symphony No. 5. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the composer's death, on August 26, 1958. The distinguished soloist was baritone Brian Johnson, making a welcome return appearance in Durham; he has often enriched our musical lives in the Triangle, since Maestro Davidson's appointment.
The orchestra, a mostly-student ensemble with some community players, has grown in size and quality in recent years. With a string complement of slightly over 60 players, the 90-member ensemble is large enough to take on all but the most mammoth Romantic works. The fact that some of the most adept and experienced string players and teachers in the state are based at Duke means that ample coaching resources are available to the orchestra. Technically, the quality of the playing is quite good, which means that even high, soft passages can be and generally are securely executed. Along the way, the quality of playing among the brasses and woodwinds has likewise improved. There were few perceptible glitches during this substantial and often demanding program.
The "Norfolk Rhapsody," in E Minor, composed in 1905-06 and revised in 1914, is one of the composer's earliest surviving works. (It is actually the first of three works bearing this name, but its companions were suppressed by the composer.) Its hallmarks are extensive use of folk material and an overall "pastoral" mood. The nine Songs of Travel are also early works but, as program annotator Andrew Kim* (class of 2010) relates, the set's publication history is unusual in that the complete cycle did not appear in print till 1960. The Fifth Symphony was composed, for the most part, during WWII and revised in 1951. There are orchestral works by this composer that are more balanced, in terms of structure (the first movement seems unduly long, although part of that is VW's propensity to take his time getting from Point A to Point B), but it is infused with deep-felt spirituality, thanks in large measure to extensive quotes from material used in the morality opera, The Pilgrim's Progress, a score that the composer apparently thought, at the time, he would not be able to complete. That Davidson is devoted to this music became apparent in his introductory remarks – he mentioned that it is the only score he has elected to perform twice during his Duke tenure – and as the performance itself unfolded.
The program looked appealing, on paper, and proved to be so in actuality, too, although one could make a case for an all-VW evening being a bit too much of a good thing. The "Norfolk Rhapsody" seemed episodic, thanks no doubt to the variety of tunes that figure in its various sections. The Symphony took a while to slip into its groove, not technically but interpretatively; there's a sense of resignation and acceptance about it that make it, in this listener's view, a bit of a hard sell for busy folks of an entirely different social and cultural milieu. That said, the groove was found and the score engaged by the second of its four movements, for sure, and by the time the slow movement (Romanza: Lento) had worked its restrained magic, the audience seemed ready for the truly extraordinary finale (Passacaglia: Moderato) that brought the work to a glowing, upward-tending conclusion.
In retrospect, it was the performance of Songs of Travel that will likely linger longest in the memory, thanks in large measure to the superb vocalism and projection of Brian Johnson. His diction was so good that one only rarely needed to refer to the words, printed in the program. The texts, by Robert Louis Stevenson, are familiar to many readers, whether or not they know these songs – "Bright is the Ring of Words" may be one of the best-known poems in the English language. The accompaniments provided by the orchestra were as secure as Johnson's singing, and as a result the cycle took on a sense of greatness that made this reading truly special.
This set the bar high for spring concerts by this orchestra, scheduled for March 4 and April 15. We'll have details in our calendar, closer to those dates.
*The notes on the "Norfolk Rhapsody" are by T.J. Young (class of 2012), and on the Fifth Symphony, by Bobby Cieri (2011). The annotators are all members of the Duke SO.