Think you have to travel to Lincoln Center in New York City to hear premiere symphony music? Think again. Thanks to the Duke Symphony Orchestra's recent increases in size and skill, students and community members can receive a high-quality cultural experience right here on campus.
With 79 members - including students, faculty and employees - the DSO has experienced rapid growth over the past four years, since the arrival of conductor Harry Davidson, professor of the practice of music.
"During the first semester of this year, the orchestra was about 75 students, which is about three times the number that was in it when I first came three years ago," Davidson said. "We're really happy about the growth along with the growth in the quality of the group."
This improvement has been the hallmark of the orchestra's seasons both last year and this year. In its spring 2002 season, the DSO premiered the opera Don Giovanni with professional opera singers.
"[The DSO has] definitely grown a lot in terms of size and quality. The pieces we played my freshman year were a lot easier," said concertmaster Psyche Loui, a senior. "Last year we did Don Giovanni, which was a great success, and our audience size has grown noticeably." As concertmaster, Loui serves as first-chair violin and is second in command below the conductor.
Members say the growth in size has been just as significant as the increase in quality because it provides more instrument diversity. "The balance has improved," explained Annette Ellis, an Office of Information Technology analyst who has played the french horn with the DSO for eight years. "For example, we've got a lot more low strings to complement the violins."
Each season, Davidson chooses a new theme. This year's theme is "All About Brahms," although the repertoire also includes works from Haydn, Schumann, Beethoven and Wagner.
"Generally speaking, I pick the themes based on what I think the orchestra needs to accomplish in terms of its development and growth of the students in it," Davidson explained.
As part of the orchestra, the students, professors and community members have the unique experience of being placed on a level playing field. "It seems to me that the act of music-making itself within an orchestra is such a leveling experience in the sense that you're all working toward the same thing and the boundaries and categories are far less significant," Davidson said. "They just melt away."
The benefits of having a cross-section of ages in the orchestra extends beyond simple camaraderie. The DSO provides students the opportunity to learn about a life beyond college that includes music, even if it is not their profession.
"One thing that's nice about having community members is that you can see the continuity," Ellis said. "Your musical life doesn't have to end when you leave school. It can be a lifetime activity."
For some, the value of membership in the orchestra rests in the sanity it provides them. Junior Victor Jeffreys, who has played the double bass in the DSO for two years, explained, "It's a release for me. No matter how tired or stressed I am, I can go in and play music and I feel really rejuvenated after playing."
But being part of the orchestra is not all fun and games. With intense practices four hours a week, DSO members commit serious energy to their craft. "We have four hours of rehearsal per week, and that's a lot of time. But it's not an excess of time - it's a tight schedule to prepare every concert," Loui said.
The concerts serve as the crossroads for musicians to merge with the rest of the Duke community. Most performances are free and are held on campus.
Some members feel the orchestra helps to raise the cultural bar on campus. DSO members encourage their friends to support them at concerts, exposing these novices to the world of symphony and the arts.
"[The DSO] raises the cultural scene in the University," Loui added. "It's the biggest student musical organization on campus, and getting 79 people involved in one project is a great thing."
DSO's other members share Loui's enthusiasm. "We're definitely improving and it's an exciting time to be a member," said violinist Ian Han, a sophomore.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.