Some folks view the Bull City as the citadel of regional culture, and there's a measure of truth there. Durham's not the only Triangle burg with a major university, of course, but the Gothic Rockpile's arts offerings are more extensive than elsewhere, and Duke is home to many fine artists and ensembles and arts series, a full listing of which would exhaust this review's word-count. But there's more to Durham than Duke. For openers, there are cultural events at NCCU and at the Hayti Heritage Center, and then there's the Choral Society of Durham, the Durham Chorale, Long Leaf Opera, the Durham Savoyards, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, the Mallarmé Chamber Players, the Durham School of the Arts, the Carolina Theatre, several bands, and a huge theatre contingent. And there's also the Durham Symphony Orchestra, which is 29 years old, and which Alan Neilson has led for twenty years. We've been singing the praises of our regional orchestras since the season started in earnest, in part because when people say "The Symphony" they often mean the one that plays in Raleigh's fancy hall, and in part because so much ink has been spilled to tout The Symphony's "new hire" that our other orchestras have been pretty much lost in the shuffle. That's a shame, for there's merit in having more than one – and because the presence of orchestras with diverse missions means there are lots of opportunities for players and for music lovers, too.
On November 7, at the family-friendly hour of 5:30 p.m., the Durham Symphony Orchestra presented the first of its season's formal classical concerts that involve the full ensemble. Like several other outfits, the DSO offers a concerto competition program, and it features the winners every year in formal concerts. This time, the winners were pianists, and both came from the remarkable stable of young artists maintained by Raleigh-based pedagogue John Ruggero. This year's winners are Dylan Addis, of Fuquay-Varina, a home-schooled senior who will head off to college next year to major in piano performance, and Hattie Chung, who attends East Chapel Hill High School, plays both piano and violin, and has won many prizes already. In the second half of the DSO's program, Addis performed the first movement of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2, and Chung, the third movement of Prokofiev's Third Concerto. A side benefit of both young artists studying with John Ruggero is that Ruggero Piano, which is run by John's brother Richard, provided a piano for the concert, and not just any piano – nope, the stage was graced by a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Piano, far and away the most attractive instrument available today, anywhere in the world, and easily one of the most magnificent. Clothes don't make the man, the saying goes, and a piano doesn't make an artist, but this one didn't hurt as the players went through their respective pieces. Neilson elicited fine support from the DSO, and both readings offered much to admire. For openers, John Ruggero's students are technical wizards, but he manages to draw out their inherent musicianship, too. As a result, the interpretations made sense and provided great pleasure to the audience, and that's more than remarkable, given the cookie-cutter products of so many big-name conservatories nowadays. There were some slight glitches in both readings, but nothing derailed, and the little bits of rushing (or lagging, depending upon one's point of view) did not appreciably detract from the overall effect created by both players in their showcase numbers. In each instance, one felt deprived that only one movement was played.
The concert began with the National Anthem, followed by a lush performance of Vaughan Williams' familiar Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, scored for string quartet and double string orchestra. This requires a substantial and polished string section, and the DSO, with the fairly standard regional complement of 41 strings, has more than enough to do it justice. The DSO's principals – Concertmaster Anne Reagin, Principal Second Violinist Shelley Livingston, violist Michael Castelo, cellist Deborah Pittman, and bassist Dan Thune – led and played for all they're worth and then some, and the sheer sound that filled the hall was for the most part rock-solid and bracing. Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila Overture, played here often enough to approach war-horse status, received a polished reading that fit well with the rest of the program, although this writer would opt for one of the early Russian master's other curtain raisers sometime – the Overture to A Life for the Tsar would be a wonderful alternative.
The centerpiece of the concert – aside from the two young artists, of course – was a rare performance of Miaskovsky's best (and best-known) work, the Symphony No. 21, in F Sharp Minor, Op. 51. It's also known as the "Symphonie fantaisie," under which title it received its world premiere in Chicago. (There's some dispute about that, actually: notes with the first two recordings of the score, by Rakhlin and Ormandy, perpetuated the myth that it was first given in Moscow and first heard in America courtesy of the CBS network, but it is fairly clear that Frederick Stock commissioned and premiered it in Chicago on December 26, 1940.) The great Russian symphonist cranked out 27 of these things, but this one has all the best attributes and is concise as well. The DSO played it like some of the majors play Shostakovich, and the crowd responded with keen enthusiasm to the passionately committed performance.
After the intermission came the finale of Dvorák's "New World Symphony," which the DSO also played very well. Since the Miaskovsky was premiered here and the Dvorák celebrates its creator's American sojourn, there was a nice programmatic tie, and of course preceding the Soviet-era score with the Glinka and following it with Prokofiev made good sense, too. The excellent program notes were by DSO president (and flutist) Anne Aitchison, and when the concert was over she presented plaques to the young artists and flowers to Maestro Neilson, in honor of his 20th anniversary at the helm. A post-performance reception was, as one says, the icing on the cake. The DSO's season includes several more classical concerts, pops offerings, chamber music, outdoor events, and fund-raisers with music. Full details are listed in our series tab. The orchestra itself is a community treasure, and it – and other orchestras like it – occupies a place in our cultural fabric where, absent it, there'd be a huge void. That's a given. The DSO is good at what it does and gives outstanding musical value for its ridiculously small budget. That's a huge plus. We CVNCers congratulate and thank the Maestro and the DSO and hope for many, many more years of music making in our midst.