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Duke University, well known for medicine and science, has a reputation for providing classic, quality education; it is one of the finest private institutions in the nation. However, members of Duke's music faculty were the stars of the music department's third annual Faculty Chamber Recital, and they outshone any doubts a newcomer to the university (like me) might have about the standard to which they hold both their students and music itself.
The concert featured six members of Duke's music program - adjuncts, a Ph.D. student, and professors alike - in various groupings of soloists with accompaniment, duets or duos, and solos. The works performed were primarily modern 20th century songs, with two of the composers actually present in the audience: Mark Engbretson, Associate Professor of Composition and Electronic Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and J. Mark Scearce, Director of the North Carolina State University Music Department. Accompanied by the magnificent harpist Laura Byrne, Scearce's wife Leda performed her husband's composition – largely written with her in mind, he explained, and also hinting at an approaching anniversary he might be trying to win some favor for remembering(!).
As is fitting for a chamber music recital, the concert was very intimate, presented in the East Duke Building's Nelson Music Room, which features a smaller stage lit by a combination of stage lighting and lamps set up on stage to help performers see their music. Despite these confines, Katharina Uhde, a graduate student, filled up the whole space with her dizzying rendition of the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 78, that began the concert. Similarly, Rachael Elliott, the bassoon teacher at Duke, wowed the audience with David A. Lang's "Press Release," originally written in 1992 for a bass clarinet. This score, a stylistic opposite to the Brahms, features funky, polyrhythmic patterns and extreme ranges of the bassoon – from squealing high notes to low notes that can be felt as a rumbling in the chest almost better than they can be heard.
A crowd favorite at this concert seemed to be Benjamin Britten's Third Suite for Cello, Op. 87, played by Fred Raimi. The suite lasted for nearly thirty minutes, and without clear breaks between movements it was difficult to keep up with its progress, but this didn't stop the audience from adoring the music. Raimi played with high passion, even when using extended techniques for the cello like sliding up and down in glissandos, bending pitches, and plucking multiple strings with both hands simultaneously. During the second movement, a lively and almost frenzied march, Raimi played with such force that he had to pause after the movement to pull off broken hairs from the bow. Britten's writing demanded such high drama that there was an audible sigh of amazement after Raimi finished playing before the audience members could collect themselves enough to clap.
Laura Byrne, who not only teaches harp and Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill but also regularly performs with the Choral Society of Durham, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, the Carolina Ballet orchestra, and North Carolina Opera, was also a star at this concert. She accompanied soprano Leda Scearce in J. Mark Scearce's "Bright Star," which has a folk-tune feel but is programmatic and exciting while still remaining beautiful. Byrne's true showcase, however, was in Salzedo's "Chanson dans la Nuit," which also uses modern, advanced techniques. Byrne demonstrated her talents at not only playing the harp, but also using the wood of the harp as percussion, adding an extra element of fun and romance to the instrumental song.
All in all, Duke University's Department of Music did not disappoint anyone: the playing of the faculty, guest student, and featured visitors were enough to prove the high standards and caliber of Duke's programs twice over. Anyone who attended this high-drama, two-hour concert showcase would agree that these professors are a force with which to be reckoned!