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“Durham Symphony Orchestra is the orchestra of the people,” said Music Director Maestro William Henry Curry during the orchestra's concert this past Saturday. Indeed, the DSO has been striving to provide the Durham community with engaging, affordable, and accessible concerts since its founding in 1976. Maestro Curry certainly has a knack for accessible programming, creating concerts that audience members, regardless of age or musical experience, can appreciate and enjoy. DSO's most recent Pops in the Park concert, sponsored by Trinity Park, was one such accessible concert. By featuring popular music, charging no fee for attendance, and hosting the concert outdoors, the orchestra appealed to a wide and diverse audience. Unfortunately, the rainy weekend weather cancelled picnic plans and moved the concert to its alternative location, Watts Elementary School gym. The small audience in attendance was likely a result of the weather and the location change, but what the audience lacked in size, they made up for in enthusiasm. Cheers followed the conclusion of each piece, and it was as though the audience was still enjoying a casual, outdoor concert.
Before delving into the music, Executive Director Melodie Griffin-Pugh gave a brief speech welcoming the audience and thanking Trinity Park and Ellen Dagenhart for sponsoring the event. Later in the program, Dagenhart was presented with flowers, a fitting gift given that it was Mother's Day weekend and that Dagenhart has played a very supportive role for the DSO, similar to that of a mother.
After the uplifting intro, Maestro Curry took the to stage, and the powerful and familiar starting notes of "Farandole" from Georges Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2 filled the auditorium. "Farandole" is an excellent starting piece for a pops concert with its bombastic march melody and the contrasting dance tune. Both melodies invite a physical response from the listener, and no knowledge of the music or the composer is needed for an audience to connect to the music. People knew to lean forward in their seats as the warlike march builds in tension, to nod heads during the lively farandole portion, and to cheer enthusiastically at the dramatic finale of the piece; the audience in attendance at this concert reacted exactly so. Of course, it helped that the musicians of the orchestra themselves were invested in the music, each section playing with boldness and energy and all sections playing remarkably in sync with one another. "Farandole" was followed by a piece similar in many ways, Franz von Suppé's "Light Cavalry Overture." It too features flashy melodies and gripping contrasts. Bravo to the brass section for a sensitive reading of the piece and for excellent articulation!
The middle portion of the program demonstrated how, along with entertaining, music allows people to express their unique voices in relatable ways. Florence Price, noted as the first black woman to write a symphony, was one composer featured in this portion of the program. The bulk of Price's music has been discovered only recently, but has quickly become well loved and popular due to both its quality and its accessibility. On this program was her piece "Tropical Noon" from Dances in the Canebrakes, a series of songs originally written for piano and arranged by William Grant Still. Maestro Curry actually had a quote given to him by the arranger's daughter, Judy Still, meant to express the beliefs of W.G. Still himself. "Music can heal," Maestro Curry quoted, "and God heals through music." Despite having faced much prejudice and hurt in her life, Florence Price continued to celebrate the African American experience in her music. One cannot help but enjoy Price's music, and in doing so, one can better relate to the person and people behind the music. "Tropical Noon" is an especially pleasant piece, meant to depict a relaxing summer scene. It features jazzy melodies and distinctly African American rhythmic motifs that easily get stuck in one's head. The musicians played the piece fondly, capturing the sensuality of the music and the emotion within it.
The orchestra performed the two Scott Joplin pieces that followed with similar accuracy, avoiding a tight, regimented sound in favor of embracing the freedom and swing of the music. The version of Joplin's "The Cascade Rag" that the orchestra played had been newly arranged by local teacher and composer, Oakley Lyons. A highlight on the program was that Lyons himself guest conducted the piece. Seeing in person the genius behind the arrangement made the music all the more approachable and special for listeners.
After Tchaikovsky's "Coronation March," a piece that thrilled the audience with its boldness in the same way that "Farandole" and "Light Cavalry Overture" did earlier in the program, the program ended with a crowd favorite. All across the auditorium, smiles jumped onto faces and images into minds as John Williams' music from Star Wars exploded from the brass section. Williams' music has a special place in the hearts of many and, needless to say, the audience was thoroughly gripped by the DSO's performance of the music from the throne room scene and end title of the first Star Wars movie. With the brass section playing full force and the excellent acoustics of the room compounding the sound, ears were ringing in the best of ways and hearts pounding by the end. However, particularly noticeable during this piece was the uneven instrumentation — there were a total of six violinists and an equal number of cellists. One's ear begged for the three empty violin chairs to be filled, but, overall, the missing violinists were only a minor hindrance to the excellent balance of the ensemble's sound.
Impossible to leave out in a review of the concert was the bizarre encore, not included on the printed program. After a lengthy round of applause and standing ovation, Maestro Curry commented on the crummy weather and made reference to a recent forecast predicting snow for the Durham area. With a smile, Maestro Curry explained that it was only right that the orchestra perform a Christmas song given the forecast. Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" is far too likeable a piece to complain about hearing, even in the midst of summer, and it certainly made for a memorable and humorous, albeit strange, conclusion.
Durham Symphony Orchestra's performances, as evidenced by this Pops in the Park concert, continually prove with their accessibly, inclusion of diverse music, and affordability that the ensemble truly is the people's orchestra. Be sure to take advantage of their concerts, which are truly designed with you in mind. Join the ensemble on June 16 as they continue to use music to explore important topics in a concert titled American Women's Suffrage Centennial Concert — Lauding a Women's Right to Vote.