The Duke Medicine Orchestra, which is part of Duke Arts and Health, isn't your typical doctors' orchestra, although there are doctors in it. In fact, there may be more doctors in the Chapel Hill Philharmonia, which doesn't formally link itself to medicine at all. But both groups remind us of solid ties between science and music, as A. Eugene Washington, Duke's chancellor for health affairs, said to a reasonably robust crowd in Baldwin Auditorium before the ensemble's latest concert, titled "City Trees."
Its website states that Arts & Health provides "literary, performing and visual arts programming to Duke University Hospital patients and those who care for them." This occurs in numerous ways, of which the orchestra's two annual concerts would appear to be merely the proverbial iceberg's tip.
On this occasion, the overall program was both wide and deep, encompassing the evening in Baldwin, which included the world premiere of a new version of a contemporary work, originally for wind band; the involvement of Artspace-based visual artist Clara K Johnson, who omits punctuation after that "K," and who created several works inspired by the new composition and the orchestra's performance of it (and the sale of some of whose art will benefit the orchestra); the planting of eight trees on Mangum Street, behind the auditorium; and the decoration of a tree entered in the Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge, which might just bring the DMO a $5K prize if enough people vote for tree #35. (For details of that, click here.)
And the program itself was attractive, too. First up was the overture to Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, a fairy-tale opera with strong Wagnerian musical overtones that is sort of an on-again-off-again holiday favorite. The orchestra, which lists over 80 players on the published roster, sounded quite impressive in this rich and radiant fare, with conductor Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant providing precise and often energetic leadership.
The new work was next, introduced by its composer, Michael Markowski (b.1986), an Arizonan transplanted several years ago to NYC; "City Trees" (2013), his first composition in the Big Apple, stemmed from his awareness of the plight and the strength and resiliency of those starved-for-ground-space trees one sees from time to time in what at first glance resembles nothing less than a concrete jungle. (There's more flora – fauna, too – in NYC than first meets the eye.) The orchestration of this short work was commissioned by the DMO, and this was its premiere in this version. The composer has done a nice job with orchestral light, shade, and color. It could well depict walks around his Astoria, Queens, neighborhood at various times of the day, in various weather states, or it could depict a single tree as observed during the course of the seasons of the year. Some of the resulting music is serene, while other sections seem heroic. Wind buffets the landscape at times. Yet the bottom line seems more comforting and reassuring than confrontational. "City Trees" lasted about seven minutes; it's handsome enough that one wished for it to go on a while longer. The response was enthusiastic, with lots of applause for the composer and the performance.
Chabrier's "España" Rhapsody brought the first half to a close. Like the Humperdinck, this music, once wildly popular, is not often heard anymore. It was good to hear it on this occasion, particularly as it was so nicely realized and led with such infectious spirit.
After the intermission there was a full performance of the sometimes-excerpted Grand Canyon Suite* by Ferde Grofé, a piece once emblematic of American spirit and (in some respects) domination. On this occasion, the playing was augmented by brief narrative passages and by the showing of slides of the Grand Canyon and other Western landscapes that went by quite rapidly – a little too quickly, perhaps. The execution of the music was fine throughout, with generally well-chosen tempi (although those pack animals might have objected to the speed demanded of them by those orchestral clip-clops). In retrospect, this was a real treat, and no one could possibly complain he/she didn't get his/her money's worth.
This non-holiday concert – with, I should probably have said earlier (and often) some truly notable solos along the way, in all the sections – was a bright spot in programming hereabouts (echoed by the CHP's recent Carrboro outing). The encores in Durham were, however, of a holiday ilk, starting with A Christmas Festival (presumably Leroy Anderson's version; it lasted about 12 minutes) and then a radiant stand-alone performance of "O Holy Night" that featured vocal soloist (and, earlier, narrator) Meredith Achey.
*The GCS was very popular during WWII, figuring in numerous concerts and broadcasts, one of which may be heard here.
Note: The informative pre-concert talk involved the composer of "City Trees," the visual artist whose work celebrates it, and the DMO's conductor.