Photo: Les Todd
Photo: Les Todd

Symphony for the Devils

Conductor Henry Davidson
June 1, 2004

On a late summer's afternoon, Harry Davidson gets a call in his office. A prospective student is visiting Duke with his family. He's interested in music. Does the conductor of the Duke Symphony have time to talk? Sure, Davidson says. Send them down.

The student, it turns out, plays the euphonium. He's not planning to major in music, he tells Davidson; maybe it will be his minor. He's not heading toward a music career, either. "Good," says Davidson. "If you were planning a career in music, I'd say, 'Duke is a great school, but go somewhere else.'"

Davidson has made his peace with this anomaly. He's a serious musician and demands serious musicianship of his players. But Duke is not a conservatory. Most of his student musicians will go on to graduate or professional schools to become doctors or lawyers or executives.

A prime example is Psyche Loui '03, his concertmaster last year and a phenomenal violin talent. She was selected to attend the prestigious Aspen Music Festival the summer after her junior year and won Duke's concerto competition her senior year. She played the Vieuxtemps Fifth violin concerto with passion and precision at the orchestra's final concert last spring. Loui is now a graduate student in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Loui and Davidson arrived at Duke the same year, 1999. She had played in youth ensembles in her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, and so it was only natural that she join the orchestra. The rapport with Davidson was immediate, she recalls. "He was an excellent musician to work with, and very approachable."

Davidson was also accustomed to dealing with professional musicians and conservatory students. He remembers when he came to audition for the job at Duke. He arrived in the hall punctually at 7:00, the orchestra's scheduled rehearsal time. "There was one person there with a violin case. Not till 7:30 were there enough people there to rehearse. You start on time. I couldn't believe it." It was one of the first things he changed when he arrived at Duke and was emblematic of other changes to come.

When Davidson took over as the Duke Symphony's conductor, he faced a more essential challenge than tardiness. The orchestra was made up primarily of freshmen. As students got more involved in their college activities, many became unwilling to commit the necessary time and energy and drifted away. Loui was among them. "I thought I was too busy," she says. She dropped out in her sophomore year, but Davidson kept up with her. He would run into her on campus and ask, "Why aren't you playing?" He'd nag her gently--"in a nice way," Loui says. Her junior year, she came back.

She returned to a different ensemble. Her freshman year, she recalls, they had taken on only easy stuff: Bach's "Air on a G String," things like that. By the time Loui returned, Davidson had led his student musicians on to more demanding things. By last spring, the easy stuff was a distant memory. "My senior year, I told the freshmen we had played Bach's 'Air on a G String,' " Loui says. "They couldn't believe it."

Ian Han, now a junior, also remembers being disappointed in the orchestra when he first arrived at Duke. A violinist since early childhood, Han began playing in youth symphonies in his native Cincinnati in the fifth grade. The orchestra at Duke seemed a little amateurish, he says. The lack of upperclassmen--and thus, players who had a history with the ensemble--limited what it could accomplish.

But Han says he was impressed with Davidson. The directors he had encountered in youth symphonies didn't have Davidson's commitment. "A lot of youth directors are trying to advance themselves in their careers," Han observes. For many, directing a youth symphony is merely a stepping-stone. "Professor Davidson is very passionate about what he's doing." He encourages his players to understand the music at a deeper level. Under his tutelage, "my appreciation for music has increased," Han says. "He's not a disciplinarian, but he's very serious about what he's doing. People respect that."

Students responded to the combination of rigor and warmth. "He knew everybody's name, unlike every other conductor I've known," says Loui. The orchestra's growing reputation began attracting more accomplished players. At first, Davidson had to take almost everyone who showed up. For concerts, he nearly always had to bolster the student musicians with professionals from the outside, particularly for obscure instruments like bassoon and harp.

Those days are gone. Now, at the beginning of the year, there are usually a few flutes that don't make the cut, and even for the uncommon instruments, Davidson says he finds he can be picky. "Last year I actually did turn down a couple of bassoons, which was a really rare thing to happen, and a couple of oboes."

Han says he has been pleasantly surprised at the quick progress of the orchestra. He notes that for its first concert this fall, the ensemble took on the Bruckner Fourth Symphony, a massive work that might scare even a much more accomplished ensemble.

The Bruckner, in fact, was a signal of sorts. It said: This orchestra has grown up. One person who picked up the signal was local music critic Roy Dicks. As a regular reviewer for the Raleigh News & Observer, Dicks hadn't paid much attention to the area's college orchestras; his time was taken up with the North Carolina Symphony and other professional ensembles, he says. He had seen a few concerts at Duke over the years, "but they were just doing the standard, easier things, not very challenging, not very interesting."

Making overtures: the maestro at work

Making overtures: the maestro at work. Photo: Les Todd

 

 

Then Dicks heard that the symphony was about to perform the Bruckner Fourth. "I said, 'I gotta see this,'" he recalls. As it turned out, Dicks says, he was impressed with the orchestra's performance, but not only for the Bruckner. The first part of the program, about forty-five minutes of music, included some dense Schubert and Mozart pieces that could never be described as light fare; then the audience came back for the Bruckner--all sixty-five minutes of it. "It was quite a heavy program," Dicks recalls. The audience members "probably didn't know what they were getting into." But the orchestra held their attention. "It was quite a wonderful thing to see," he says.

Dicks' subsequent review for the website Classical Voice of North Carolina went further: "The players gave evidence of extensive rehearsal as they precisely responded to Davidson's every cue, whether building a well- modulated climax or making a sharp cutoff," he wrote. "It was a pleasure to watch Davidson's body language reflect the many moods of the music, never just for show but always deeply rooted in the glories of the score."

"I think Davidson's made a tremendous impact," says Tonu Kalam, who conducts the student orchestra at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The numbers tell the story." The symphony now attracts between seventy-five and eighty-five players every year. "When he came, it was down to about forty," Kalam says. "He's done a good job providing the students with the kind of experience that is meaningful."

Perhaps that's because Davidson sees himself primarily as a teacher. Unlike a lot of serious musicians, he did not grow up in a musical family; his teachers were his key to the world of music. Davidson's father was a homicide detective for the city of Cleveland; his mother was a homemaker. "Everyone assumed I was going to be a lawyer," he says. But a teacher at the small private high school he attended offered him free cello lessons, and the idea of a future in law was replaced with a new obsession. "Once I started getting into music, nothing else mattered," Davidson says.

But he had started late, and, without the years of childhood lessons and practice, his chances of making it as a performer were slim. Then another avenue opened up. When he was in the eleventh grade, he showed up for a rehearsal one day only to learn that the music teacher was absent. "Several of my classmates sort of encouraged me to take over the rehearsal, and it went very well," he recalls.

"I found I could get music from other people. I had a sort of epiphany--this was something I could do."

Davidson earned his bachelor's in music in a joint program at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Case Western Reserve University. By the time he graduated, he was conducting several community orchestras. "I never had the angst of looking for a job," he says. "I went right into conducting various groups, and I started entering competitions."

He conducted several community orchestras, along with the Cleveland Institute's youth orchestra. He then went to Washington State, to lead the Tacoma Youth Symphony. He arrived to find two orchestras that gave three joint concerts a year; about 150 students participated. By the time he left, there were five orchestras and more than 500 students. "We had a summer music festival that I founded. We had a chamber music program, a wind training program, and a Bach festival."

From Tacoma, he joined the music faculty at the University of Akron and began conducting the university's student symphony orchestra, which had, in his words, "fallen on hard times." He managed to resuscitate that orchestra while also finding time to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra's youth orchestra at Severance Hall. By the time the Duke position became available, in the spring of 1999, he was associate conductor of the Wichita Symphony in Kansas and a professor at Wichita State University, and he had begun to enjoy a reputation as a rebuilder of orchestras.

But even for a seasoned fixer, there were difficulties at first. "It was frustrating in the early days when there were some very trying rehearsals," he told Dicks, the News & Observer's music critic, in an interview. "Basketball season would come around, and people would just start disappearing because that was the accepted norm. You just have to change the ethos of the situation and that takes time."

Duke was willing to give him that time, and Davidson has surpassed its expectations, according to observers in the music community. Musicology professor Bryan Gilliam was on the search committee that hired him, and told Dicks last year that Davidson was the first choice for the job. Even so, he was amazed at what the new conductor accomplished. "If someone had told me five years ago that our orchestra would be playing Bruckner, I would have questioned his sanity," he said in the interview.

Davidson doesn't limit his mission to the student musicians he can push into the stratosphere. He's also passionate about the basic missionary work of his profession. A case in point is the freshman seminar he designed for students who arrive at Duke with no musical background at all. Since he began offering the program in 2001, he's had to turn students away.

He stands before his small class, demonstrating the difference between the right-angled precision of the classical and Baroque periods and the more sensual meandering of Gershwin, with its bent, blue notes.

He stands before his small class, demonstrating the difference between the right-angled precision of the classical and Baroque periods and the more sensual meandering of Gershwin, with its bent, blue notes. Photo: Les Todd

 

At a meeting of the class last semester, in a small classroom in the music building, Davidson starts with the basics. Music, he tells the dozen or so students slouched in a semicircle around him, has a vocabulary like any other discipline. Starting and stopping tapes and occasionally jumping up and using the keyboard in the piano in the corner, he plays snippets of Gershwin's "Summertime," Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," Haydn's "Surprise Symphony"--sort of a Top-Forty classical hits.

Unlike his symphony players, some of the students don't even recognize these classical warhorses. The cream of American high-school graduates lack the musical equivalent of the ABCs. Unlike most professors, Davidson has to start from zero. "I'm not shocked, because I've been doing it too long," he says. "I think with a lot of these kids, they are well-rounded but not as well-rounded as one might think."

He blames the skewed priorities of American schools. "The whole mechanism now is almost being built to exclude what many people regard as a peripheral activity, as opposed to the core, serious curriculum," he says. "It seems to me that if the school officials would realize that this is a fundamental activity, we would be turning out a lot more engaged kids." Fortunately, for Duke students, Davidson provides an opportunity to fill this gap in their education, and he attacks the task with enthusiasm and verve.

Like many good teachers, Davidson is just a bit of a ham. He stands before his small class, demonstrating the difference between the right-angled precision of the classical and Baroque periods and the more sensual meandering of Gershwin, with its bent, blue notes. His body mimics his words, standing erect, then swaying woozily as he wilts slowly down into his chair.

Then he's asking the students to beat out tempos on their desktops. They hesitate, gripped by shyness. "Aw, c'mon," he urges, "You do all these crazy dances." He makes an awkward attempt at an adolescent boogie, and the kids have to giggle. In no time, he has them all conducting.

It takes different skills to engage those with musical backgrounds and phenomenal talent--like Loui and Han--and the results are often fleeting. There's the rub. Davidson teaches a set of skills that demand enormous commitment to a group of students with high expectations for their futures, including remuneration. Han, a biology major, expects to go on to medical school. He considered a career in music "only briefly, in high school," he says. "It's a tougher road than even medicine," he says. The aspiring professional musician puts in more time, faces stronger competition, and receives a fraction of the pay that an M.D. does.

Loui, the talented violinist now pursuing graduate work in psychology at Berkeley, says she thought about music as a career, but felt that she had not made the required commitment early enough in her life. "I didn't start practicing five hours a day until college," she says. Most violinists "started practicing five hours a day when they were four."

Her experience at the Aspen Music Festival also figured in her decision. "I met lots of little kids there who were ten years old. They were already practicing five hours a day and were probably better than me."

So she decided to pursue psychology. "At least there were no ten-year-old psychologist prodigies," she says wryly.

But music is still a big part of Loui's life. She's preparing to audition for the U.C. Berkeley Symphony, she's playing chamber music, and she's taken up the electric violin.

"There are all sorts of ways to have music in your life," Davidson acknowledges. Like Loui, many of his students will continue to play in community orchestras and other ensembles for the rest of their lives. And even if they don't play, he says, they'll be listening. After all, he says, "A lot of the audience for classical music is generated from students who have come into contact with it in a significant way through playing an instrument. Part of the joy of it is the fact that they do it because they want to, and they want to maintain music as a part of their lives."

That, he says, is more than enough.