It felt like a respite from the horse race known as the search for the new music director and conductor – no guest soloists, and the familiar face of William Henry Curry, Associate Conductor of the North Carolina Symphony, on the podium, leading an all orchestral program. Despite the precarious snow-rain-sleet weather conditions there was a good-sized crowd at the Chapel Hill Bible Church on February 6 for what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable programs of this season. It was a collection of great works that cannot be considered overplayed war-horses yet are familiar enough to entice some to turn off the TV, get in the car and experience them in person.

Other than several of the more famous Rossini overtures, it would be hard to match Mozart’s Overture to Le nozze di Figaro ( The Marriage of Figaro ), K.492, as the consummate curtain raiser. Mozart wrote the entire opera in a mere six weeks during the fall of 1785. The libretto had to be changed several times, because of its moral and political excesses, until it reached its final form and premiere in May of 1786 in Vienna. It was an enormous success right from the start and its popularity continued to increase. The overture is not a collection of themes from the opera itself. It exists as an independent work, clear, clean, and sparkling – you can’t help but smile when you hear it – like a small, perfect gem. The orchestra displayed great finesse and lightness as they zipped along at a breathless pace. At the end one almost expected a curtain to rise upon a courtly 18th-century scene with men in powdered wigs and elegant women.

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 82, went through three revisions before it was conducted by the composer himself in its final version in Helsinki on November 24, 1919. Known as a composer of programmatic music, Sibelius however denied any program attached to his Fifth Symphony, insisting it was pure symphonic music. Despite this denial it is hard to listen to this work without having it evoke the Scandinavian landscape. Curry was a masterful guide as he led the orchestra on this wonderful and magical journey. The feeling throughout the work is one of great expanse and timelessness along with a battle between repose and conflict. The work begins with a melancholy fanfare-like theme for French horn that reappears throughout the symphony, especially in the winds. It is a brooding movement, bleak and dark, that leads without pause into what is called either a separate second movement or just the second part of the first. A more agitated and forward moving pace is felt, with long sustained chords from the brass. The Andante mosso movement is a set of variations, much more upbeat and simpler than the grandiosity of the preceding, that serves as a sort of palate cleanser before the epic finale. The last movement started off with what was some of the finest string playing I have heard from this orchestra. A soft, murmuring, perpetual-motion figure increases in intensity as the theme is introduced by the horns. The brasses finally entered and continued with such strong, majestic playing that you thought the windows would shatter. This was a performance where you almost forgot there was a conductor leading the group. This is not meant as a critique but is, I believe, a trait that is often missing from many conductors. The fact that the performance was so stirring and moving is evidence enough of Curry’s great talent.

It is often said that Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 – the “Enigma” Variations – is one of the few British pieces that have become part of the standard orchestral repertory. Recordings of this work, regardless of how well played or recorded, do not begin to reveal its magic and brilliant orchestration. The theme began, as the story goes, from Elgar just noodling around on the piano. After his wife remarked on one of the themes and asked about it he replied that “something might be made of it.” This seemingly simple theme is so interesting because it contains many contradictions and is thus filled with possibilities. It is at once mysterious yet accessible and rhythmically basic, but with enough uneven phrases and accents to make it interesting. Elgar flirts with major/minor shifts as well as hints of modality. The mystery continues with the revelation that there is a “hidden” theme, in addition to the stated one, which runs in “silent counterpoint” – thus the nickname “Enigma,” which appears on the title page of the published score.

The work contains 14 variations, each labeled with the nickname of a friend of the composer. Elgar went on to describe the variations as being written “.to represent the mood of the ‘party’. I’ve tried to imagine the ‘party’ writing the variations himself or herself, and have written what I think they would have written – if they were asses enough to compose.”

I have never seen this orchestra appear to have so much fun as when they played this work. Many of the string players were smiling, and there was such a sense of playfulness and abandon that even without the descriptions of each variation you could sense different characters and personalities. This was everything that makes a perfect evening at a concert hall (in this case, a church sanctuary) – an excellent, but not self-centered conductor, great programming, and a feeling of both profundity and fun.