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Weaver Auditorium, in effect the birthplace of the Durham Symphony Orchestra some 40 years ago (despite suggestions that it was hatched in a kitchen), was the site of the venerable community orchestra's latest triumph – a collaborative concert with the even more venerable Choral Society of Durham (founded in 1949 as an offshoot of the Raleigh Oratorio Society), further augmented by the presence of singers from choirs based at the Durham School of the Arts and four vocal soloists of exceptional quality.
The program consisted of two magnificent works, one familiar, one far less so: Mozart's Requiem, the master's final work (performed in the edition prepared after his death by Franz Xaver Süssmayer); and Bruckner's Te Deum, that master's favorite among his compositional children, despite all those immense symphonies.*
It's hardly a new thing to observe the positive effects of several fine organizations working together but the DSO is raising this concept to a new level with its many undertakings, most recently involving KidzNotes but, earlier this year, embracing an MLK observation at Duke and, coming up, an Ellington tribute at the Hayti Heritage Center.**
One reason for these collaborations is the high cost of programming major works. Working together helps groups control expenses, as the NC Symphony does with its ongoing relationship with a Raleigh-based choir. That relationship has however come at a cost, the cost being the loss of other choirs working with our state-supported orchestra. For that reason, it's particularly gratifying that the DSO is working with the CSD and that the DSO's music director, William Henry Curry, on this occasion shared leadership of the program with the CSD's artistic chief, Rodney Wynkoop. (There are other choral organizations in this state – some not very far away – that merit the opportunity to work with our state orchestra, too, but that's a topic for a separate dissertation at some point down the road….)
Curry led the first work, the Bruckner, which the CSD hadn't performed for almost 60 years – hard to believe but apparently true. (It was given two seasons ago in Fayetteville, which performance was the first around here in recent memory, for sure.) Joining the maestro and the DSO were around 130 members of the CSD plus soprano Louise Toppin (of UNC), alto Mary Gayle Greene (of ASU), tenor Brian Thorsett (of Virginia Tech), and Winston-Salem-based bass-baritone Jason McKinney (a product of the UNCSA). Three of these artists have been heard hereabouts with considerable frequency, to the great enrichment of our cultural life. This concert marked the tenor's debut with the CSD although he is no stranger in our state.
The quartet was splendidly matched and balanced, and each of the soloists made strong contributions in both works. One is tempted to call this a "million dollar quartet" but chances are above average the fees don't add up to that. The tenor has a light, lyric voice but with a considerable heroic ring that let him project with apparent ease. Toppin is among our most reliable solo singers. Greene is based a little too far away to enable her regular presence here in the Triangle so her every appearance here is cause for rejoicing. And McKinney, heard just a few weeks ago in the FSO's Carmina Burana, again impressed with his total immersion in whatever he happens to be singing.
The choir was positioned behind the orchestra, on risers. Curry elicited superior playing from the orchestra. The chorus was in excellent form, in terms of diction, precision of attacks and releases, blend, and for the most part projection and balance, bearing in mind the heavy orchestra Bruckner employs. The Te Deum is an exciting song of praise, and this performance was exciting, too. Here's hoping we are not in for another long stretch before it's heard again locally.
Part two brought the Mozart, the work that is for those who suffered the trauma of 9/11 sure to be forever linked with that attack, thanks to "Rolling Requiem" performances around the globe.
For this part of the program, the CSD's singers were joined by massed choirs from the DSA, prepared by Sydney Boggs, Amy Davis, and Sean Grier, and thus increasing the size of the choir by another 100 singers.
Wynkoop himself conducted the Mozart, as he did in late September 2001; this Weaver Auditorium performance was not as fraught with emotion but was far enough removed that we were able to savor its many beauties as music and art and even spirituality without an overlay of tragedy. It was a gorgeous reading of one of the most popular settings of the mass in the whole history of Western civilization. The soloists were radiant at every turn, the big choir was rich in its presence and involvement, the orchestra responded to the conductor's every cue and subtle nuance, and the overall results were deeply moving. When Wynkoop is the drillmaster, exceptional results almost invariably ensue.
At the end, there was a big demonstration from the audience, with applause lasting many minutes.
There were some empty spaces in a hall not known for its comfort, thanks to seats that, as in some fast-food joints, seem to slide their occupants forward, as if to increase turnover; many people were observed with pillows, perhaps to offset that issue. But the sound's not bad, despite the depth of the stage, which was packed with people.
This was a wonderful collaborative effort, featuring some of the best artistry to be found in Durham. To borrow some thunder from a current political ad, the future's bright in [this part of] NC – given the ongoing work of the DSA, the CSD, the DSO, and these groups' estimable leaders.
*Susan Dakin's outstanding program note reminds us that Bruckner anticipated this choral work serving as his ticket to paradise: "When God finally calls me and asks, 'What have you done with the talent I gave you, my lad?' I will present [H]im with the score of my Te Deum and I hope He will judge me mercifully."
**Jason McKinney is among the featured artists in this next DSO concert.