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It's been quite a ride, in 2002-3, as the Duke Symphony took its ever-expanding audiences through the wicket that is Brahms' music, following on Music Director Harry Davidson's Mozart series last season and two years of ensemble rebuilding at the great Durham institution of higher learning. Earlier this year, the Duke SO featured Brahms' Haydn Variations, the Double Concerto (with Ciompi quartet members Hsiao-mei Ku and Fred Raimi), and the German Requiem, with seven choirs. When the final notes of Brahms' Second Symphony sounded in Baldwin Auditorium on April 9, the place erupted with applause and cheers and the members of the audience leapt to their collective feet. Who'd have thunk it possible, a while back? Davidson himself said the concluding number was the most difficult and ambitious work the ensemble has undertaken during his tenure - of that, there can be little doubt, even though previous performances have included such milestones (for Duke and its SO) as two complete performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni . Was the Brahms Second up to snuff (to drag in an historical product of the Bull City)? Mostly, yes. The work unfolded leisurely, and the first movement seemed particularly slow, but the spirit was willing throughout, and on no occasions was the flesh noticeably weak. The balances were uniformly fine, and the pacings allowed for some remarkably clear and clean articulations, gave the winds considerable exposure (for the most part warranted), and allowed time for Davidson himself to shape the whole and its myriad components, too. Watching this Maestro is at once fun and informative, and his labors are almost always richly rewarded in sound. The concluding work picked up steam and security, too, as it unfolded, and by the time the great final movement began, there can have been few in attendance who were not on Davidson's and his players' wavelengths.
The concert began with a truly astonishing reading of the Prelude to Act III of Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Even big opera productions rarely enjoy a band of 65 or so players, and in some cases, the orchestral portions of stage productions leave much to be desired in terms of impact and even audibility. Here, with the orchestra on stage, one could savor one of music's most sublime preludes, and it was wonderful. Davidson led this without a baton, sculpting the air all over the place, sometimes swooping his left hand over the music of the front-deskers (and making us wonder, at one point, if the concertmaster would be able to see the sheet music!). He was up on his toes and down on his haunches, and he drew from his orchestra the sort of playing, at once precise and impassioned, that would warm the hearts of subscribers to some pretty high-ticket outfits here and there. It was, as I said, astonishing.
The theme was "Brahms: The Best of Wagnerites," which the Maestro sought to explain - and did, reasonably well. The title quotes what Brahms said of himself, but the joke is that the two composers were perceived to be poles apart, and (as in our recent diplomatic to-do) people were either with the one or with the other - there was virtually no common ground, in their time. Now, as Davidson reminded us, we can have the best of both worlds, together, even.
The luncheon meat that kept the two slices of whole-grain bread apart was a work that only violinists can love, Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 5. This guy's claim to fame, aside from his seven concerti, was as a star fiddler and as Ysaÿe's teacher, so he was no slouch, but this fairly short concerto is of the knit-one-purl-two variety (and I write this as the child of a fiddler who played this music). Soloist Psyche Loui, winner of a concerto competition at Duke last fall, realized her part with considerable skill and evident feeling, and, after a somewhat rough start, the accompaniments did the music ample justice. The slow movement is a one-tune thing but the tune is a winner. Throughout the three-section work (played without pauses between the movements), there many opportunities for the soloist to shine and Loui, the Duke SO's concertmaster, did so.
She is among thirteen graduating seniors, all of whom were recognized at the performance. Of these, five (including Loui) are principals, so Davidson and the underclasspersons will have their work cut out for them next fall. In addition to the concertmaster, the departing musicians are: violinists Marie Guerraty, Jessica Schweer and Russel Sequeira; violists Lauren Walters (principal), Leslie Collier and Mark Lebetkin; cellists Maureen Hurtgen (principal) and Andrew Mandelbaum; flutist Elise Moylan; oboist Alexis Downs; clarinetist Victor Chen (principal); and trombonist Gary Gustavsen (principal).
Lest we overlook a fellow scribe, kudos to program annotator Ian Carlos Han, a violinist and member of the class of 2005. This program shows that Duke can produce full-fledged documentation. Bravo!