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There's something very special going on in Durham, centering on its wonderful community orchestra. Lots of communities have orchestras – members of these groups are the great unsung heroes and heroines who, collectively and individually, infuse our cities and towns with home-grown, home-nurtured culture – and music education, too, of course – in ways that no itinerant ensembles, howsoever fine, can hope to do. The Durham Symphony Orchestra is a case in point. Founded by Vincent Simonetti, built and polished by Alan Neilson, tweaked along the way by guest conductors including Arturo Ciompi, Scott Tilley, McCrae Hardy, and Robert Ward, and led for more than four years by William Henry Curry, this ensemble has, in terms of its technical and artistic prowess, arrived. Its ranks are filled with secure musicians. It has a permanent home in the Carolina Theatre and regular venues it uses for summer pops and its annual Christmas show. It makes due on a budget that is much smaller than one might expect. It hustles by day and then glistens in the limelight, come evening. It is, as many have said, a gem, worthy of much more widespread support.
For its annual holiday pops concert, the band was again ensconced in the historic Durham Armory, a hall that is a surprisingly good place to hear music. The place was festively decorated with wreaths and illuminated Christmas trees and table linens and poinsettias. There were desserts and beverages in endless profusion, including some special sugar-free comestibles for diabetics. If one got the impression that everything was for sale – items on the tables of silent-auction goodies stretching across part of the back and down one side, the flowers on the tables, the 5' wreath on the back wall – well, this was one of the orchestra's major fundraisers. That the DSO is doing lots of things right was shown by the fact that the floor seating was nearly full and the balconies, too, were wall-to-wall people (for the first half, at least – which leads one to suspect that many were families of the guest children’s choir that sang before intermission).
Did we mention community engagement? Lots of orchestras bring in a choir every now and then, when they take up the obligatory annual oratorio performance. This orchestra has a compulsion about involving other local performing arts groups, on a regular basis. This time, the 80 or so singers – 4th and 5th graders, please note – of the Hillandale Children's Chorus were on hand to brighten the risers behind the orchestra, and they responded in ways only bright-eyed young people can do to their director, Dena Byers, in music from The Polar Express and "The Candy Cane Twist" (choreographed!). Even more impressive was the director's leadership of the choir with the orchestra in a song from Home Alone; I find myself still moved by this as I write, for how many kids of that age have an opportunity to work with a full symphony orchestra? It was truly special.
And there was another guest group, too, in the second half: members of the Triangle Gay Men's Chorus offered an admirable group of three numbers, starting with "The Little Drummer Boy" and ending with a dazzling set of variations on "Jingle Bells" in which each section was in a different musical style. We've been to lots of holiday pops; this arrangement, by Mark Hayes, is a standout. (Check out the several recordings on YouTube!) The soloist in this and in the preceding performance of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was the rich-voiced Lora Fabio, an elegant addition to the platform alongside the formally-clad gents.
And then there was the orchestra. To begin and end, Maestro Curry picked works he clearly loves and feels deeply about: two marches by Victor Herbert ("March of the Toys" and "Festival March," with its "Auld Lang Syne" interlude). Classical fare of the highest order graced the first half, as Verdi's Overture to La forza del destino received a reading that glowed from within, followed by Vaughan-Williams' Fantasia on "Greensleeves." After the children sang, Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers" proved unexpectedly heart-warming and powerful as incisively led by Curry and played (as if their lives depended on it) by the musicians of the DSO.
MC Dave Bartlett introduced the concert and made periodic appearances, particularly in prodding the crowd to bid up the items in the silent auction, for the benefit of the orchestra. Curry spoke, too, engagingly and congenially. His affection for the DSO is manifest in all he does.
In the second half, the men sang, the crowd sang – I guess sing-alongs are inescapable, but here one wished for another number or two from the orchestra instead! – and the aforementioned "Festival March" brought the show to its formal close. The crowd was however not content with that, so a bouncy reading of "Sleigh Ride" pumped everyone up for the journey home – in shirt-sleeve weather. Winter's not here quite yet, but the DSO put this crowd in the proper mood and spirit.