Orchestral Music Review



Duke Symphony Orchestra Enchants in Hommage à Mozart

March 14, 2012 - Durham, NC:


The Duke Symphony Orchestra continued its season with a Reynolds Industries Theater program in homage to Mozart. Music Director Harry Davidson reminded those present that the orchestra's customary home, Baldwin Auditorium, is undergoing renovations; the orchestra and its audience, too, must long to return there, where one may hear these outstanding free concerts without having to pay parking attendants for the privilege, but it will be a while longer, and indeed the last concert of the current school year will be in Page Auditorium on April 11.

The 74-member Duke SO is 2/3s strings, and the strings were in very good form on this occasion, starting with Ibert's 1956 "Hommage à Mozart," written for the 200th anniversary of that composer's birth. (It was a very big celebratory year, with lots of performances and new books and recordings being brought out; for more on one of these, read on.) The Ibert tribute is sort of Mozartean in terms of its lightness and joy, but it's French, too, as one might have expected from the composer of Escales. The playing was of a high order, with the winds in particularly good form. The performance marked the 50th anniversary of Ibert's death.

Next was a short sort-of pastoral rhapsody by the distinguished composer and academician Wayne Barlow, most of whose professional career was at the Eastman School of Music. Like too many other "traditional" composers from his era, his music is little heard nowadays. He studied with Hanson and Schoenberg and dabbled in electronic music when that field involved real work but the piece heard in Reynolds, "The Winter's Passed," for oboe and strings, is probably his best-known composition. Bo Newsome was the guest soloist, and he and the Duke SO strings made a very strong case for the truly lovely score. The performance marked the 100th anniversary of Barlow's birth.

Before the intermission, an outstanding performance of Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 was given, featuring Jameson Kuang, winner of the orchestra's concerto competition this year. He studies with Pei-fen Liu, and he has a major claque, and he plays breathtakingly well - well enough to make one think he ought to devote even more time to performance. The concerto itself may be viewed as a series of piano solos with orchestra obbligato. Well, perhaps that's a bit harsh. It has some lovely moments, and the performance had a lot going for it, and although it's very well known among pianists, it's not heard in concert very often, so there was much to relish about this reading. The place went wild - or as wild as things get at the Rockpile when sports are not involved.

Davidson spoke of Mozart's "Linz" Symphony (No. 36, in C, K.425) before leading it in the second half, telling how it was written and prepared for its premiere in six days in 1783. Genius, eh? Well, it's one of the most engaging of the "late" symphonies (none of which were late, for he was so young…), and it was given a radiant reading that one suspects will linger long in the memory. There was more good work from the winds, the string ensemble was almost always strong, and the tempi were consistently suitable. There was warm applause when it ended, applause quite well merited.

I can't let this go without mentioning one of those 1956 recordings that was of truly special merit. It was a Columbia Records set of rehearsals of the "Linz" Symphony by Bruno Walter with the Columbia SO (his West Coast band). The set came with a miniature score and included the finished performance, recorded after the rehearsals were done. This was special because till that time rehearsal records of important conductors were still rare, often consisting of just snippets from here and there; the Walter set included whole "goes" at each movement and of course his (gentle) comments to the players. It was and is very special, and no one who loves this music should miss it. Sony reissued it a while back - copies are available from Amazon - and Naxos has it, too, in an edition that must be imported from overseas (due to our arcane copyright laws).

As noted, the Duke SO's next local concert will be April 11, in Page Auditorium. For details, see our calendar listing.