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In the not-too-distant past, The Heart of Durham was a hotel, but even in its heyday, some arts enthusiasts considered the Durham Symphony Orchestra to be the true heart of the Bull City. Community orchestras are like that. True, there's a much-loved and -admired chamber orchestra there, one that grew out of the music program at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. There's a fine university orchestra of long standing, with deep heritage and cultural roots. There's a doctors' orchestra. There are youth ensembles, including Kidznotes, our own resident version of El Sistema. But for many of us, past and present, the Durham Symphony, the city's very own orchestra, is where it's at, to borrow a grammatically-impoverished phrase.
That's because this orchestra is from and of the community, its members living and working in the area, teaching and playing and serving as role models to others – and also advocating for the arts. The orchestra offers an annual competition for young artists; the top players earn opportunities to solo with the DSO. The orchestra works hand-in-hand with Kidznotes and with Durham high schools, encouraging students as they master instruments and, eventually, the art of orchestral performance. The orchestra commissions and actually plays new music. And American music. And all kinds of music. And in multiple venues. And for different kinds of audiences. And everything it does, it does from the heart, to bring us back to where we came in. Community orchestras often serve as the glue that binds the cities they serve. The DSO is all that and much, much more.
On a soggy Sunday afternoon, with more competition than usual, the DSO offered a family-friendly program titled "Music from the Movies." It was sort of a bait-and-switch offering, for the bill of fare encompassed music from a TV series, music used at the very end of a movie, and two excerpts from soundtracks by John Williams. But there was also a world premiere and a glorious reading of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, which ought to have been used in a flick but maybe hasn't yet been.
William Henry Curry conducted – he of the boundless enthusiasm, passion, and commitment for music in all its radiant forms. One would never have known it from his appearance and stage presence in Riverside High School's auditorium, but this was his fourth concert in three days. He made it all look easy, like a walk in the park.
The program began with the "Funeral March of a Marionette," Charles Gounod's once-ubiquitous tune that was appropriated by Alfred Hitchcock for his TV series. The orchestra sounded good as heard in the large room, thanks to the presence of some of the strings forward of the arch (and to the use of a shell along the rear wall of the stage).
The new work, "Evolution," is a sort of fusion piece, merging the symphonic tradition with dubstep, which carries some influence from reggae, although it originated in London. Anyway, the music, crafted with idiomatic skill by G. Oakley Lyon, who teaches locally, spoke to this listener and to others in the audience, too. The composer conducted it himself, seeming completely at ease on the podium. I pay it the highest critical honor, not routinely awarded "new music" by any of us curmudgeons: I would like to hear it again!
Maestro Curry returned to introduce Howard Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony, also once ubiquitous (thanks to radio broadcasts of "Music from Interlochen"), but here relevant because it was excerpted at the end of Alien. This is one of the greatest American orchestral compositions, so it was a special treat to hear it in concert again, particularly in such an outstanding and memorable performance and interpretation.
After intermission came an even more exalted performance, this one of Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, for cello and orchestra, the closest thing we have to a cello concerto from the great Russian master. The soloist, Esther Holliday, is a junior at the Schwob School of Music (of Columbus State U.) and the 2015 winner of the DSO's Youth Concerto Competition. No wonder! This is an artist already fully formed in technical and artistic terms, and she was at once radiant and spellbinding in this often-magical and always totally-engaging music. She received outstanding support from the DSO, the ever-watchful Curry constantly tending to matters of balance and phrasing and dynamics so the soloist was indeed in the spotlight from start to finish.
And if that hadn't been enough, the orchestra was then joined by around 40 young musicians from no less than five Durham high schools. These "honor student musicians" boosted the orchestra to a band of over 100 players for two much-loved tunes by John Williams (who, Curry reminded us, is America's greatest living film composer). "Princess Leia's Theme" (from Star Wars: A New Hope) and the theme from Superman served as stirring caps for this generous and heart-warming program. (Readers may look up details of these last films at the best of all online websites for movies, the Internet Movie Database.)