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William Henry Curry
First, the bad news: rain forced the North Carolina Symphony off Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheater stage shortly after conductor David Glover had started them on their way into Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 for the second half of the Friday, June 17 concert. The 'cellists in the front row beat a hasty retreat as they saw the water-drops appearing on their instruments, followed in quick succession by the violinists from the opposite side of the platform. After a delay of some fifteen minutes, an announcement was made that a decision would come in another ten minutes about whether or not the concert would resume; many of the audience, having brought their umbrellas, stayed until they heard that the continuing light but wind-blown rain would not permit the concert to resume.
The good news: the Friday program began with Beethoven's first Piano Concerto, in C, Op. 15, with soloist Michael Brown capturing the Mozartean quality of this early Beethoven keyboard concerto. The opening Allegro con brio was cleanly etched, but stretched out of shape by Brown's overly-long cadenza; I assumed it to be the composer-pianist's own, but, as is the norm with the Summerfest concerts, there were no program notes to confirm or deny this. The second movement Largo, where Mozart's influence seems most present, featured exquisite clarinet passages to complement Brown's beautifully-musical playing. The concluding Rondo was a delightful romp, with Glover keeping the orchestra well-together with the pianist. Brown played an unidentified solo encore, a mostly quiet work in decidedly Romantic garb that drew well-deserved additional applause from audience and orchestra alike.
Thursday, June 16, was proclaimed "William Henry Curry Day" by Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, the proclamation read from the stage by Lyman Collins (Cultural Arts Division Manager for the Town of Cary) to honor Maestro Curry for his twenty years as Artistic Director of the Summerfest concert series. The proclamation highlighted Curry's numbers for the summer series since 1996: 130 concerts played to audiences in excess of 500,000 people, and his "Play with the Pros" programs which allowed some 600 amateur musicians to perform with the NCS in concert. In his verbal program notes, Curry noted that when the Summerfest series began, the concerts consisted of music from Broadway and Hollywood only, but because the NCS is a symphony orchestra, Curry believed that the concerts should include symphonic literature. The performances which followed showed just how much he will be missed.
First came Beethoven's Concerto No. 3, in C minor, Op. 37, featuring pianist Natasha Paremski. The C minor concerto, arguably the most melodic of Beethoven's piano concerti, was also the composer's vehicle for harmonic innovation (e.g., the slow movement being in E rather than the traditional relative keys) and his exploration of the higher range made possible by advances in development of the piano. Paremski's playing was flawless, clear, and incisive, marred only by her tendency to rush in extended sixteenth-note passages in the opening movement.
In the more-Romantic-than-Classical second movement Largo, Curry implored the violins for more vibrato, a sign that both first-stand regulars were absent from the ensemble, as were a number of other NCS members. The concluding Rondo's passages of dialogue between piano and orchestra were not helped by the amphitheater's sound system technicians, who managed to make the piano louder than the full orchestra. Nevertheless, it was a bravura performance by all, with Curry's perfect tempos and spirited rhythmic drive inspiring not only the orchestra but also Paremski's scintillating playing.
The soloist announced her encore, saying that she didn't have any Beethoven at hand for encore purposes, but instead offered a work by the Russian composer and founder of "The Mighty Five" composers' group, Mily Balakieriev. A fantasy on Russian themes, this is a tour-de-force of pianistic pyrotechnics which delighted the audience and the still-on-stage orchestra alike. One hopes that Paremski will record this work soon, because it deserves a wider audience. (Included in her recordings is her appearance in duet with 'cellist Zuill Bailey in the NC Symphony's CD of Benjamin Britten's Cello Symphony and his Sonata for Violoncello and Piano.)
After intermission, Curry led the NCS in Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92. In his spoken commentary, he quoted Richard Wagner's summing up of this symphony as "the apotheosis of the dance." And dance it did, with verve, as the NC Symphony seemed to play its collective heart out for the musician who has been their resident conductor for twenty years.
The opening bars of the 7th ("poco sostenuto," "a little sustained") are majestic, but their alternation between forte and piano gives little clue to the dance which is to come; six quiet bars of repeated "E" pitches, in dialogue between woodwinds and violins, are the bridge to the vivace section. The flutists lead the way as this dance begins, the rest of the orchestra accompanying them; 26 bars later, there's a fermata – giving the players a chance to prepare for the rollicking setting of the flutes' tune for the orchestra in full cry. "Always fortissimo," Beethoven writes in the score, until a brief respite of "soft but getting louder" takes us back to fortissimo again. Amidst the changing dynamics of the score, Curry never let the rhythmic drive slacken as Beethoven's energetical music storms, without slowing, to its final two chords.
Then followed the Allegretto variations, featuring the orchestra's string sections. This is the movement which the audience at the work's premiere in 1813 demanded to be repeated before they would allow the third movement to be heard. The fugal section of this movement, marked and played pianissimo, was a joy to hear. This slow dance came to its quiet conclusion; one imagines the dancers bowing to their partners before taking a deep breath and diving into the one-step-per-bar Presto movement. This stylized minuet-and-trio movement brought not only vigor, but also beautiful playing, especially from the orchestra's wind and string sections. Like the first movement (and the last, yet to come), this third movement ends with no slowing down, its concluding five chords seeming to say, "yes, this is the end!"
Then it was on to the finale, not only of Beethoven's 7th, but also, regrettably, to Maestro Curry's tenure with the NC Symphony. (He will return as guest conductor next season, and continues as Conductor and Music Director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra.) Allegro con brio, Beethoven marks the score, "fast and with fire" – a galop, perhaps, albeit in sonata form, which never slackens its pace from beginning to end. In its peroration, we hear a foretaste of Brahms' 2nd Symphony horn parts (although Beethoven's score calls for only two horns, the lineage of Brahms' four-horn passages is clear). "Let it all hang out," Beethoven might have written across the final pages; he did, not once but twice, ask for fortississimo (fff, as loud as possible), the first time he called for that dynamic in a symphony. Curry spurred the orchestra on, the dancers caught up in the whirlwind of 23 bars of fff, breathtaking music.
And then the dance was over. The audience was on its feet, bringing Curry back for yet another bow. "William Henry Curry Day," indeed. Bravo, Maestro!