Community orchestras have the potential of being a strange hybrid of seasoned professionals, advanced students and sometimes musicians whose membership is questionable. Fortunately for the Triangle, the Durham Symphony Orchestra is of such a high quality that it can present ambitious programs like the one heard November 3, at the Carolina Theatre, in downtown Durham. This was the first of the only two "Classical Concerts" scheduled for the 2002-03 season. The poorly-attended program (Sunday at 7:00 p.m. is not the most ideal time) will certainly not help those of us who would like to see less "pops" and more Brahms in the DSO's schedule, but that is a very old and common debate that won't be solved here.
Since there was ample choice of where to sit, I decided to try the first balcony instead of main floor orchestra seats. The sight line is ideal, with the stage framed perfectly and no interference from others, as in the lower section. However, I wasn't prepared for the remarkable difference in sound. Concertgoers' perceptions of sound quality are obviously subjective, but I felt as if I found the perfect spot, at least for an orchestral concert. A warm, balanced, enveloping sound embraced you, and the lower strings' rich tone could actually be felt.
After "The Star Spangled Banner," the concert opened with a work that would have caused HIP (Historically Informed Performance, the current PC term for authentic instruments performances) people to run screaming from the building. "The Faithful Shepherd" is an arrangement made by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1939 of several instrumental movements of the Handel opera. The practice of romanticizing Baroque music was prevalent at that time but is considered bastardization of the original style by current HIPsters. However, the reading by the DSO was light, with crisp articulation and great energy in the fugal section, notwithstanding modern bows and steel-wound strings.
The strings took a rest as the brass section was featured in a wonderfully tight and expressive performance of the fanfare from "La Peri," by Paul Dukas. It is one of the few remaining works of the extremely self-critical composer of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and the performance was worthy of comparison to the brass sections of some of the great orchestras. Attacks were all dead on and together, and the entire ensemble sounded as one cohesive unit. Bravo!
The guest artist for the evening was cellist Jonathan Kramer, Associate Director of the Music Department at North Carolina State University and a frequent participant in numerous chamber music concerts throughout the Triangle. He presented the popular, well-loved, and devilishly difficult "Variations on a Rococo Theme" by Tchaikovsky.
An elegant and tuneful theme is stated by the solo cello after a brief harmonic introduction by the orchestra. It was immediately apparent how well and how sonorously the solo cello projected, which is no small feat. Credit needs to be given to conductor Alan Neilson for being mindful of the balance and not allowing the orchestra to bury the soloist, even in the forte sections. The variations build in virtuosity as the work goes on, and Kramer demonstrated an effortless facility while maintaining a beautiful and rich sound that seemed to emanate from every corner of the hall. In the finale, which contains some impossible-sounding octave figures, there were some intonation problems, but these did not detract from the brilliant flourish at the end. It was obvious that Kramer was having a wonderful time playing this work, and his enthusiasm and joy filled the performance. Proclaiming that "the first half was a bit short," he returned for an encore: the Prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 3, in C Major. Alas, the rendition was so fast that the lovely harmonies were muddied.
The second half was taken up with the Symphony No. 1, in C Minor, Op. 68, by Johannes Brahms. The story behind this monumental work is well known. Mindful of the legacy of Beethoven, Brahms deferred composition of his first symphony well into his professional career. At times it has been referred to as "Beethoven's Tenth" a label that serves neither composer well. This work grabs your attention from the opening with the insistent tympani and chromatically rising strings. It is a difficult score, which like much of Brahms involves a great deal of modulation, often to string-unfriendly keys with 5 and 6 flats. Careful attention to all details of dynamics and rhythmic fluctuations can result in a very good performance, and that is what we had. However, this is a work that requires "playing" by the conductor to get all the richness and intensity Brahms intended, and Neilson beat a rigid, metronomic pattern with his right hand. While the score was beautifully played for the most part, the chance to make it a superb performance was missed as phrases bled into one another, due to the machine-like approach from the podium. Perhaps because of this, the musicians kept their focus almost exclusively on their scores. There were wonderful moments, like the statements of that grand theme in the fourth movement, but the individual players could do only so much to bring out the magic of the total work.