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Page Auditorium on Duke's main campus was sparsely filled for the North Carolina Symphony's all orchestral concert of American and Russian works. The concert opened with Aaron Copland’s very familiar "Fanfare for the Common Man." Somehow, to me, the opening bass drum beat seamed mellower and richer than usual. Maybe it was the welcomed spring day, maybe it was the near ideal seat in the middle of the auditorium. William Henry Curry’s always carefully measured tempo took the piece on a dignified course through its brief but up-lifting performance. This is a work that is much larger than its short playing time would indicate.
The American symphony heard during the remainder to the first half of the program was Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, “Romantic.” It was written on a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930 when Hanson was 33. It is a rapturous work with many singable and now recognizable tunes. There is little hint of the dissonant harmonic and rhythmic experimentation that was taking place in many European schools of music at the time. The symphony is in three movements, the first two especially are lush with the intent of the subtitle of the work. Whenever I hear it, I visualize 1930s dramatic Hollywood romances and the rolling credits that were usually at the beginning back then. Not until the third movement of the symphony do we hear much in the way of excitement, and even then it is romantic excitement.
Hearing it was a most pleasurable experience. Curry led the NCS in an impassioned performance, well paced, dynamically moving and solidly interpreted. Hanson wrote music in most all forms and was awarded the Pulitzer in 1944 for his 4th symphony, subtitled “Requiem.” As Director of the Eastman School of Music for 40 years he accomplished much to establish and enhance performance, composition and build the prestige of classical music in America.
The winter of 1874-75 was one of the lowest and darkest periods in Tchaikovsky’s life. The winters were always hard for him, characterized by loneliness, melancholy over his social situation, uncertainty and insecurity; all compounded by a sort of cabin fever imposed by the harsh Moscow winters. In addition, when he presented his B-flat Piano Concerto to Nikolai Rubinstein that Christmas, he was shattered by his boss’s severe criticism of the work. He worked his way through the winter, staying in Moscow against his doctors’ advice, and as the weather improved his gloom lifted. He received a commission to write Swan Lake and he composed his Third Symphony (the only one of his six symphonies set in a major key) in only a little over six weeks.
The subtitle “Polish” was not Tchaikovsky’s intention for this symphony and may have been suggested due to the majestic polonaise that comprises the finale movement of the five movement work. It is thoroughly Russian and Tchaikovsky in style with flying woodwind scale flourishes, dashing strings and triumphant brass. The second and third movements have folk-like melodies treated in a classical style.
Though this is not one of the favorite Tchaikovsky symphonies, it was a delight to hear it performed with exquisite detail and precision. It is attributed to Confucius that “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” The North Carolina Symphony under Curry’s baton brought us an evening of that kind of pleasure in full.