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There was a time in the not too distant past when what we now call "crossover" concerts made mainline music lovers roll their eyes and critics cringe. No more – at least when programming masters such as William Henry Curry are involved in creating and presenting them. The latest example of the Durham Symphony Orchestra's music director's genius, heard at the Carolina Theatre on a busy evening in the Triangle and as basketball madness played out in Houston, was dubbed "All that Jazz." But it was – typically – much more than merely that, for it encompassed a dozen guest artists* in a baker's dozen of magnificent selections projecting much of what's truly wonderful about North Carolina by North Carolinians – music by creative and performing artists, living and dead, who left their lasting marks on the sounds we cherish most, here and elsewhere on our planet.
There was home-grown classical music with native influences, heartwarming new music similarly inspired, world-class bluegrass in a first-ever orchestral setting, samples from the pen of our nation's greatest composers in both symphonic and jazz idioms, and a stem-winding reinterpretation of one of the principal anthems of the Civil Rights movement. All these pieces were strung together with artistic skill, introduced with consummate understanding by the maestro, and played with consistently breathtaking skill by the guests and the DSO, too, working in (dare we say it?) the closest kind of harmony from start to finish.
The program, thoroughly enjoyable as it unfolded, offered much more than superficially met the ears as the evening was also a history lesson that concentrated on many of our greatest creative artists. These included Charles Vardell (1893-1962), whose justly celebrated "Joe Clark Steps Out" used to figure in concerts by the NC Symphony; revisited as the opening work on this program, it proved even more engaging (and complex) than we’d remembered. Living composer Terry Mizesko (b.1946), longtime bass trombonist of the NCS, was represented with his glows-from-within "Appalachian Lament" for French horn and orchestra, featuring another NC treasure, Andrew McAfee, a world-class virtuoso whose conducting skills seemed to come into play as he wove his solo lines into the fabric of this eloquent music, music that could serve as a heart-warming memorial piece for a fellow horn player or for that matter for a stalwart mountain man (or person).
There followed a pair of stirring bluegrass pieces, sung and played by Steph Stewart and her ensemble, known as The Boyfriends, those fortunate souls being Omar Ruiz-Lopez, violin (who also plays in the DSO), Nick Vandenberg, bass, and Mario Arnez, bass guitar. The latter provided the highly idiomatic orchestration of "Years Are the Minutes" that was premiered on this occasion, leading into the band's performance of "Riverbed" mingled with "Dark Falls," all bearing significant Appalachian melodic and harmonic influences; both may be heard on the band's recent CD, Nobody's Darlin'.
The first half of the program continued with a pair of works by Aaron Copland (1900-90) that are rich in Americana – his elaboration and expansion of the old Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" (from Appalachian Spring, the "Ballet for Martha [Graham]" whose company coincidentally plays at UNC later this month) and then the rollicking "Hoedown," the square dance from Rodeo, in both of which the DSO was in top form.
The remainder of the concert centered on jazz as set down by Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and his sidekick Billy Strayhorn (1915-67), by John Coltrane (1926-67), by Woody Shaw (1944-89), and by Ted Ricketts (who seems to guard his birth date as if it were a state secret), the NC roots and significance of all of whom were revealed during introductory remarks by Curry. Heard in this part of the concert were several of our most distinguished jazz artists, all of whom seemed completely at ease in an orchestral environment. In order of appearance, they were Brian Miller, easily one of our most impressive saxophone virtuosos, heard in an orchestration by Chuck Israels of Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" and featured later in David Baker's setting of "Satin Doll," played in memory of that great artist and teacher who passed away just a week ago.
Also heard in this part of the program was the extraordinary trumpeter Al Strong, who brought Eric Reed's reimagination of Coltrane ("Boo-Boo Strikes Again"), Woody Shaw's "Sunbath," and a wonderful Satchmo (Louis Armstrong) medley to vivid life.
Along the way these dazzling artists were ably supported and abetted, too, by a crack jazz ensemble consisting of keyboardist Andrew Berinson, bassist Paul Creel, guitarist Kevin van Sandt, and drummer Thomas Taylor, all of whom were heard at intervals in solo turns that equaled in depth and polish the work of the other featured guests.
A highlight for older campaigners in attendance was surely Morton Gould's stirring orchestration of "We Shall Overcome," played with all due splendor by the DSO; with protestors again in our streets here, this music retains its significance for all activists.
The grand finale was a return to where we'd come in, in the form of an NC folk tune, "I'll Fly Away," as arranged by McCrae Hardy and expanded this time so all the evening's principals could participate – along with the entire audience, all of whom may now edit their resumes to show that they "sang with the Durham Symphony Orchestra."
With programs like this, here at home, who needs to make the long trek to the Blue Note?
The concert was heavily sponsored, which is a very good thing for this outstanding community orchestra. Remember, we need to support only the groups we want to preserve and maintain, and this 40th anniversary season is a very good thing to support.
*That dozen included 11 performers plus composer Terry Mizesko, who was on hand to hear the stand-alone third movement of his Highland Suite (1995-6).