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Ever since he came to Duke University over seven years ago, Harry Davidson, Music Director of the Duke Symphony, has set very high standards for his ensemble, challenging them with interesting repertoire in the face of a continually changing roster of players. The hundred-plus players, most of them students, plus a few amateurs, have made great strides, but Wednesday's concert revealed some weaknesses in some sections as well as in Baldwin Auditorium.
The concert, titled "Anglo-Saxon Synergies," included three works inspired by or composed in Britain by non-British composers. It opened with Symphony in E-Flat, Op. 7, No. 6, by Karl Friedrich Abel (1723-87), a German composer who settled in London in 1759. Together with Johann Christian Bach (1735-82) — J.S. Bach's eleventh and youngest son — Abel established the popular Bach-Abel concerts, which introduced many of Haydn's early works to England.
Because of a dated manuscript in W.A. Mozart's hand, the Symphony was originally misattributed to him (No. 3, K.18), but it was later discovered that the young prodigy had merely made the copy in 1764 while on a visit to London. Mozart modified the orchestration to better conform with late Classical period practices, including two clarinets, the version usually performed today. The work is a good example of the early Classical style, and Davidson gave it a bouncy and light reading, the violins in particular giving a smooth and coherent sound. Clarinetists Maya Salwen* and Elana Berger gave sensitive readings to the duets featured in all three movements, and bassoonist Brandon Fuqua pulled off some impressive rapid staccato licks.
Next on the program was another rarely heard work, the Sinfonia Concertante in C by Johann Christian Bach. The soloists were all pros: flutist Rebecca Troxler of the Duke Music Faculty, oboist Joseph Robinson, former principal oboist with the New York Philharmonic and currently Artist-in-Residence at Duke, violinist Frances Hsieh, a graduate of Duke's Music Department and currently a violinist with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, and cellist Leonid Zilper of the North Carolina Symphony.
Baldwin Auditorium is unkind to woodwind players, and the Sinfonia Concertante suffered from poor balance as a result. The four soloists, sitting in front of the orchestra, fared better, although Zilper's cello was often difficult to hear.
The program ended with Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor, the "Scottish," which he dedicated to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This work makes tremendous demands of an orchestra, especially the winds and horns, who had some serious intonation problems (except for bassoonist Fuqua) and were difficult to hear, drowned out by the powerhouse of first violins and Baldwin's acoustics. By the home stretch — Mendelssohn's triumphant exit strategy from a movement of unrelenting diminished seventh harmonies — everybody seemed exhausted, and the easiest music in the whole piece suffered accordingly.
Davidson's conducting was clear and precise throughout, with ample cues and a body language that "molded" the music. If only he and his forces could "mold" the Duke exchequer into building a new performing venue that can serve both student and professional ensembles....