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Rarely before or since the inauguration of Meymandi Hall and Fletcher Opera Theater has there been such lavish pre-coverage of a local classical music event as there was for this week's premiere of NCS Associate Conductor William Curry's Eulogy for a Dream . Transforming the now hallowed words of one of America's icons, Martin Luther King, into music is a tall order. For while success would mean a personal and artistic triumph, doing King's words anything less than justice would have resonance far beyond the concert hall. The pressure on Curry must have been hellacious.
For the premiere, veteran baritone William Warfield, 81, came out of retirement to narrate with great feeling and affect six excerpts from King's speeches to the background of Curry's score, which was always somber, yet hopeful, and certainly tonal. The audience was asked to imagine itself at King's funeral, and Warfield's first excerpt was accompanied only by the two-note tolling of chimes to set the funereal atmosphere. The first musical interlude was the setting of an "original" hymn tune that brought the listener further into this musical sanctuary. The narrated excerpts each covered a critical aspect of King's basic philosophy: non-violence, forgiveness, love, the "Promised Land" of racial equality and amity, God, and finally, the Dream. The only borrowed melody in the work was "We Shall Overcome," transformed here with skills and subtlety. Curry effectively increased the emotional intensity of the sections, which followed each other without pause, culminating in a majestic climax.
Eulogy for a Dream is a fine work and promises to become a January staple for orchestras throughout the country. We only hope that it won't end up like its model, Copland's Lincoln Portrait, as just another concerto for politician and orchestra.
Then, there was the rest of the concert. Curry flanked his own work and the Sibelius Sixth Symphony with two festive "Roman" works, opening with Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, a surefire crowd pleaser and orchestra showpiece, and concluding with Respighi's Feste Romane. With the exception of the Berlioz and Curry, this concert was not exactly easy on the audience. Pre-concert lecturer Tonu Kalam admitted that Sibelius's unusual structure and brooding mood make his Sixth Symphony definitely an acquired taste. And although he tried valiantly to provide some background and hype for the Respighi, Feste Romane portrays the Romans as a pretty dreary-although noisy-lot.
Berlioz was the composer who really put the English horn on the orchestral map, and, as usual, Mike Schultz certainly lived up to the composer's faith in the instrument. Curry's conducting of this poly-rhythmic piece was crisp and controlled, His attention to detail and subtle dynamics kept the piece from turning into the usual free-for-all.
Acquired taste or not, the Sibelius is a wonderful work and Curry certainly did it justice. In all of the movements the composer features frequent dialogues between a choir of woodwinds and the strings, who can be perceived as leaving everyone else out of the conversation, including the brass and some of the audience. The music is episodic, in that it is built up of isolated phrases, and it takes great sensitivity to weave together the phrases and refrain from making the work seem choppy. Curry conveyed Sibelius's reflection of the dark chilliness of the Finnish landscape with subtlety and great sensitivity to the musical architecture.
As for the Respighi, the less said the better. We suppose the performance was adequate, but there's just so much you can do with a work whose only melodic content consists of a couple of Italian folksongs thrown in towards the end and whose overall tempo suggests a funeral procession. Respighi learned-and borrowed-a lot from his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. Unfortunately, although Respighi become a great orchestrator, he did not have Rimsky's gift for melody, and there's a good reason why his best music uses someone else's tunes. But even the flamboyant orchestration cannot save a work for which the only applicable festa is Good Friday.
Finally, we would like to commend the NCS for featuring promising young musicians, who play in the lobby of Meymandi Hall before the regular concert. Even though everyone walks and talks through their performance, this is a wonderful opportunity for these young talents to be recognized. Friday's soloist was violinist Christin Danchi, a tenth grader who performed a potpourri of works for solo violin from Bach to Dvorák. Her intonation was flawless and her choice of pieces appropriate for demonstrating her musicianship rather than her virtuosity.