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Because Baldwin Auditorium, its nominal home, is under renovation, the Duke Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert of the season in Reynolds Industries Theater, on the University's West Campus, in the shadow of Duke Chapel, and in a region of the gothic rockpile's territory where parking fees are imposed night and day, whether events being attended by visitors are free or high-priced. (Some of us would rather give thousands to our favorite Duke performing group than shed a nickel for parking. It's too bad that none of the receipts benefits the artists or arts programs.)
Reynolds is a venue best known for hosting chamber music and small ensembles. Chamber orchestras have played there, and pit orchestras for operas, but the Duke SO must have been quite the largest symphonic group to squeeze onto its stage. Remember a few years ago when the very last sardine canning factory in the US closed? Seeing 80 or so musicians on that platform brought to mind images of tightly-packed little fish (in oil or water or mustard sauce). It was probably quite warm up there. And although it was a wonderfully pleasant evening outside, Music Director and Conductor Harry Davidson, clad in the traditional uniform of stick-wavers everywhere - a penguin suit - seemed often to be feeling the heat, mopping his face whenever he could fit in a good wipe or two.
The sound was remarkably fine - better, by far, than this listener anticipated. And the program - well, it's hard to go wrong with Beethoven, whether for student musicians or the most seasoned concert patrons. He's the ideal composer for concerts, solemn or festive - and there was music of both kinds on this occasion.
Although there were no speeches about it, the program was part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days, said to be "the largest symphony for peace." (Pearl was the journalist and musician slain in Pakistan by Al-Qaeda terrorists in 2002.) The opening work, the "Coriolan" Overture, Op. 62, served admirably as a tribute to the writer, for it is at once powerful and dramatic, with some glimmers of hope and optimism. The performance was reasonably good, although the pacing was a bit sluggish. One must remember that it's early in the term for this and our other college and university orchestras, and experience has shown that the collective sense of ensemble - and things like attacks (overall not too bad) and releases (…sometimes not too good), and phrasing, and uniform bowing, and balance - will get better, downstream.
A highlight of the concert was Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto, one of the master's more problematic and challenging works. (It happens to be a personal favorite, but I know I'm in the minority.) People have had trouble getting its measure since the outset, when the three soloists confused listeners. Or maybe it's the quasi-baroque small group (a piano trio, of course) versus the rest of the band. Or maybe it's the perhaps-a-bit-too-long first movement. On the other hand, the writing for the solo strings and piano is wonderful, and it's the closest we get to a cello concerto by Ludwig van B.
In any event, violinist Hsiao-mei Ku (of the Ciompi Quartet) was in rare form throughout, as was cellist Darrett Adkins, an always-welcome returning visitor who teaches all over - at Juilliard, Oberlin, Aspen, etc. - and plays as a soloist and chamber artist even more widely. The pianist was Cicilia Yudha (a bio is at http://www.myspace.com/ciciliayudha), who as her career has developed attracted attention as an early keyboardist (at the Frederick Collection, in Ashburnham, MA) and in many more traditional musical pursuits. She is currently working on a Doctorate at UNCG, where her teacher is John Salmon, one of our state's great players and pedagogues. This was a modern-instrument reading, of course, graced by some insightful and consistently attractive solo work. The accompaniments were somewhat less inspiring, but remember the caveats…. If at times there was a sense of metronomic accentuation, there was also some very fine playing from the woodwinds (it was very very fine when it mattered most!), and the 55 orchestral strings were disciplined enough to keep out of the soloists' way. Or this may be too picky. The overall impression was very favorable, and the substantial crowd rewarded all the players - soloists and orchestra alike - with heartfelt applause.
After the intermission came the "Pastorale" Symphony, made famous (for some) by Stoki's accompaniments for Disney's animations in Fantasia (the first one, not the sequel). In some respects, the playing here was better than before as the instrumentalists continued to warm to their tasks. There was much to admire, although again some of the tempi seemed a shade too deliberate. It's helpful to remember that there were lots of young people playing this music for the first time - and surely some young listeners hearing it for the first time, too. It was good.
And it's a tribute to the Duke SO and its distinguished Music Director that two of the evening's solo artists - the string players, naturally - saw fit to sit in for the "Pastorale," joining the ranks of the first violin and cello sections, respectively.
The next Duke SO concert will be on Pearl Harbor Day. For details, see our calendar.