The long awaited and much anticipated debut of William Henry Curry as Music Director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra took place in the packed Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham. It was a concert worth waiting for and a joy to experience.
The excitement of this concert was in the presence of Maestro Curry. His remarkable musical knowledge, his perceptive ear, his skill as a conductor, his humility and unassuming persona, and, perhaps most of all, his love of music were apparent in all that was heard this afternoon. It was a varied concert that held the promise of great things to come in Durham.
After a glorious rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" with the audience heartily joining in, the brass were given their baptism by fire with Aaron Copland's blazing "Fanfare for the Common Man." This was a majestic and stirring start to a program that embodied the hope and the promise of things to come. In his opening comments, Curry reiterated his intention to bring performances from the top 40 symphonic repertoire with a strong emphasis on American music, which has been recognized as one of his fortes.
Terry Mizesko, Principal Bass Trombonist with the North Carolina Symphony for some 28 years, has recently been busy developing a reputation as a skillful composer. On this program we heard his "Chorale Prelude on an Olde English Drinking Song" – the same tune that is the basis of our national anthem. It was scored for violas alone in a baroque style, and it danced along in a dignified manner with just a hint of the bawdy source of the melody. It was nicely done by the viola section which has precious few chances to shine.
The soloist of the afternoon concert, the highly acclaimed Michael Lewin, is known to Triangle audiences through his appearances with the North Carolina Symphony, most recently in the summer pops series with Curry conducting. There is an obvious bond of respect and admiration between these two. Lewin appeared as part of a reconstructed turn-of-the-century pit band in two of Scott Joplin's exuberant rags, "The Easy Winners Rag" and "The Cascades Rag." The music quickly had members of the audience tapping their toes or bobbing their heads in time with the infectious rhythm of ragtime.
George Gershwin would have been a sensation no matter when or where he had come along, but the timing was perfect for him to be the King of Tin-Pan Alley, the recording industry, and real American music. It was a risk to compose in the classical vein when he undertook "Rhapsody in Blue," and despite its huge success he did not write much for the instrument he mastered, the piano. We do have his Three Preludes — politely jazzy and bluesy and unarguably American classics. Lewin's performance was in the groove with the lively and swinging first and third. The blues-based second prelude expressed the heart of sadness and the attitude of acceptance out of which this idiom grew.
The Three Preludes in their original versions were followed by Curry's arrangement of the second prelude from the perspective of the full orchestra. Always a vigorous proponent of American music, Curry used perceptive instrumentation which provided a rich extension of Gershwin's emotion-filled masterpiece.
The first half of the concert ended with a sparkling, fireworks-overhead performance of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "Grande Tarantelle" (a dance one does after being bitten by a tarantula to sweat out the toxins), featuring Lewin at the piano and an ensemble that knows how to maximize its role as performance partner in a display piece like this.
The second half of the concert was given over to a performance of one of the most popular symphonies in the classical repertoire, the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, by Antonín Dvořák. Composed during his stay in America and thoroughly Czech in its concept and style, it uses the influence of his experience in this country so effectively that it is perfectly acceptable to refer to it in common parlance simply as "The New World Symphony." The performance was heroic, powerful, and paced well, and it demonstrated some fine ensemble playing. The swells and diminuendos were well balanced and the tempo changes held together impressively.
Maestro Curry has what it takes to make the most of this kind of music: his knowledge of the inner meaning of the music, a perceptive and precise ear, and a rehearsal skill that is known to be efficient, effective, and positive. Yes, there were a few glitches in some of the daunting brass and woodwind solos, but one expects that in a live performance. The wonderful majesty and bulk of this concert reduced performance errors to minor events. The future holds great promise for the Durham Symphony under the tutelage and leadership of William Henry Curry.