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A remarkable "Friday Favorites" concert featuring Charles Ives and other music was given by the NC Symphony under the leadership of William Henry Curry. Surely to the surprise of no one, the orchestra played exceptionally well, as it does when the stars and planets are in proper alignment. The program was actually the third in a series of three proposed by Joseph Horowitz and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH as opposed to the NEA). The back story of this undertaking merits some commentary (see below), but for openers let us consider the music, for this was an exceptional thing from start to finish, made all the more notable because, although it was warehoused at noon on a workday and not repeated anywhere else in the state, it nonetheless managed to draw a more-than-merely-respectable crowd.
Things got underway with Ives' Variations on "America," composed for organ but heard in a gorgeous 1976 arrangement for strings* by Curry. A single slide was projected above the orchestra. It did not detract from the music, which in this incarnation continues to be one of our great national treasures.
There followed the world premiere of Curry's "Autumn," a Thoreau-esque memorial piece that fit admirably into this program. The music is a eulogy, composed in memory of Michael Opdyke, Curry's long-time partner and a man remarkable in his own right, as he was a brilliant wit and an exceptional master of high cuisine. The score is often dark, with undercurrents of sadness and longing, all richly set with many moments of beautiful solo work for various principals, here played with evident reverence and led with devotion. Toward the end there's an upbeat section that brings a measure of hope to the proceedings, but the close seems to fade away ethereally. It's bound up with a recurring heart-beat here and there that suggests Richard Strauss at his best, but make no mistake: this is a noteworthy American composition that will surely reward repeat hearings. It was received with evident warmth and enthusiasm in keeping with its overall mood. Many stood in tribute to the score and its composer.
The first half ended with a movement ("The Alcotts") from Ives' Concord Sonata, his most important piano composition, presented in an orchestration by John Boyd. Thus two transcriptions and an original work set the stage for the magnum opus that was to follow in the second half.
High-Point-based baritone Scott MacLeod introduced part two with narrative remarks about Ives, illustrated with some period photos and illuminated with some excerpts from songs that were to be heard in the forthcoming orchestral piece, Ives' Symphony No. 2, composed in 1909 but not premiered till 1951, when Leonard Bernstein played it in New York. Ives was still alive, but he didn't attend; instead, he's said to have heard it on the radio in a neighbor's kitchen. (The Bernstein broadcast has been preserved and issued by the NY Philharmonic; it's available online, here. Lennie also made commercial recordings of this music in 1958 and 1987.)
This Symphony has made a lot of noise over the years, partly because of the many tunes and hymns that enliven its fabric, but as time has passed, fewer and fewer of these songs are common currency in our society, so it's a fact that the music no longer sounds quite as radical as it once did. The Bronx cheer at the end still gets people's attention, but for the most part this is a melodic work in quasi-late-romantic guise. Curry brought out its many beauties, aided by exemplary solo work from many distinguished first-deskers (and others) of the NCS. This was an ensemble performance, however, in which everyone seemed of one complete accord. Curry was in his element, channeling the music and to be sure its composer. The result was one of the finest performances of anything heard here in a very long time. The applause went on for many minutes.
The pre-concert lecture, billed online as "Meet the Artists" (plural), involved one artist – baritone McLeod – and an NCS staffer in a discussion that centered mostly on the singer's career. Those who expected some insight into the program were surely disappointed. The discussion began a few minutes late and ended early. It was basically a waste of time.
These concerts set up by Horowitz were offered to orchestras around the country. The programs were not iron-clad: this Ives one, for example, was given in Buffalo several years ago with William Schuman's orchestration of "America" and Henry Brant's** of "The Alcotts" along with Ives' "Unanswered Question" plus five songs and the Second Symphony. We seem to have had a better deal in Raleigh, since Curry's version of the organ piece and his new work were heard here.
The two other concerts in this NEH series centered on Dvořák and America and Copland in Mexico (previewed in CVNC but reviewed by our colleague Roy C. Dicks in the N&O). The three programs were hardly ground-breaking, and in fact one could make a strong case that the supplemental music included on them (Paine, Revueltas, and Curry, respectively) is as important as the big-name pieces; Horowitz didn't seem to do much that any American conductor with passing familiarity with the literature could not have come up with on his or her own. The NEH project overall seems to have centered on marketing and grants. We can do better. And in Trump's America, with the NEH (and other cultural support agencies) on the block, we must.
Finally, this was a bittersweet afternoon on several levels, not least of which is that the concert was Curry's last engagement with the NCS, following his retirement last season after 20 years, culminating in the position of Resident Conductor. Nothing was said about this, but it was clear to those who observed him at the end that this was a farewell, for he paid particular attention to the members of the orchestra, figuratively hugging them and showering them with praise from the podium before acknowledging the considerable applause from the audience. We are unlikely to see his like again in Raleigh. Fortunately, his work continues – in Durham.
PS A snip of Ives' recording of his anti-war song "They Are There" was heard in the introduction to the Symphony. The complete version is here.
*The program erroneously listed an elaborate orchestration for "America."
**For what it's worth, a slide bearing Brant's name crept into the NCS's multi-media stack, but it wasn't visible very long. As noted, John Boyd's orchestration was played on this occasion….