Perhaps in a effort to ensure that the “candidates” got equal time, the night after WRAL’s Greg Fishel emceed (and played tuba with the Triangle Brass Band), the Durham Symphony engaged WTVD news anchor Miriam Thomas as narrator for Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” which was the piece de resistance during the first concert of the community/civic orchestra’s 26th season. The program began at 7:00 p.m., the standard starting time for this valuable organization – it allows more students and other young people to attend on school nights….

Thomas was a sub for John Hope Franklin, the scheduled narrator, who is recovering – well, we’re happy to report – from a recent round of surgery. He expects to be back, better than ever, after the first of the year. This November 4 event wasn’t Thomas’ debut with the DSO, so she knew precisely what to do and how to do it, and she did it all very well. The words of our Great Emancipator, some of which were penned during a 19th-century war, were set by Copland during a 20th-century armed conflict, and hearing them again, now, during our nation’s latest mobilization, proved stirring, indeed. The strings, headed by Concertmaster Anne Reagin, often sounded magnificent, all the other orchestral musicians played their collective hearts out, and the result, overall, was a profoundly moving experience.

The concert began with the National Anthem, credited to Key, who of course wrote the words – the tune is by John Stafford Smith. The program was, on paper, a strange admixture of this and that, united (more or less) under the title, “A Concert for Our Times.” Beethoven is a staple in the orchestral world, and the DSO’s Music Director, Alan Neilson (who also leads the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra) has led all of the symphonies, over the years. His vision of the Eighth Symphony is a fairly standard one, and after things settled down a bit the performance gave considerable pleasure. Neilson can be innovative, too, and he certainly was that in the rest of the concert, which continued with Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” and, in the second half, featured both Bruckner and Rimsky-Korsakov, along with the aforementioned Copland. The Ives is one of two “Contemplations,” written in 1906. (The other one is “Central Park in the Dark.”). It is pretty far out fare, and there’s no telling how audiences of his time might have reacted to it, had they heard it–it wasn’t published until 1953. Anyway, like some other Ives things, it has various sections of the orchestra playing in different meters, so Neilson and the DSO’s Assistant Conductor Vincent Simonetti shared the leadership, and Van Zimmerman did the trumpet solos pretty much on his own. It was a grand performance of a work that was clearly years ahead of its time, and its meaning – explained by Neilson – seemed to grip at least some of the people in attendance. (Simonetti, by the way, is the DSO’s Founding Conductor and was its Music Director for a number of years early on. It’s good to welcome him back to his new, official role with the ensemble, which he’s also long served as Principal Tuba.)

Bruckner? Played by a community orchestra? Well, the Scherzo from the Seventh Symphony went very well on this occasion; indeed it went well enough to make one wish the group had continued with the finale, too. It’s dark, somber, heavy and somewhat sardonic music, and the musicians bit into it with great fervor. Still, after the Copland, it might have been seen as an encore – what else could one do after the stirring words of Lincoln, wrapped in Copland’s expansive music? – and the last piece, a dance from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden, might have been an encore, too. Since there weren’t any encores, perhaps this was all programmed intentionally.

The program notes were by Dorothy Kitchen, who gave form and shape to the concert’s diverse parts. The evening was, by and large, a fine salvo for the DSO, which merits far more support and attention than it got on this occasion. Our community orchestras are the places where some of our best music students make transitions to semi-professional status, and they are also resources where music making for the sheer love of it is frequently on display. Watch our calendar for announcements of future concerts and turn out to support our home teams when they play!