Have you noticed how much more visible William Henry Curry has been this season, as opposed to so many previous years? He kicked things off with  “Pops in the City.” He took Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony all over the state. He’s been announced as the conductor for the big Perlman gala next spring. And that’s just with the NC Symphony; he’s also doing great things in the Bull City, with the Durham Symphony.

Curry further enhanced his visibility with concerts in Chapel Hill and Raleigh featuring visiting pianist (and conductor) Ignat Solzhenitsyn. The program for these subscription-series NCS events was a typical overture-concerto-symphony (or, in this case, symphonic poem) configuration, the meat-&-potatoes formula that for far too long has been the primary lineup for the increasingly museum-like presentations offered by far too many orchestral institutions – institutions some observers of the overall cultural scene in American view as increasingly irrelevant.

But this time there was a major twist as Curry upended “tradition.” And Mahler might well be to blame. How so? Well, a brief discussion with the guest pianist revealed that there’s been of late considerable fascination in the front office of the NCS with a relatively new book by Knud Martner that presents most of Mahler’s concert programs in one place, for the very first time.* Compilations like this are nothing new – one may read the New York Philharmonic’s programs since the beginning of time, online (including performance details of the 159 works conducted by Mahler…), and similar lists exist for Toscanini, Cantelli, and many other distinguished maestri. Nonetheless, it would appear that Mahler’s concept of flexible programming may have influenced the order of these latest NCS concerts, which were, in fact, symphony (symphonic poem…) first, then concerto, and then the overture – at the end of the show. It made a difference.

As heard in Meymandi Concert Hall on October 28, Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra was revealed as the magnificent orchestral essay it can be when delivered by a large-enough orchestra (the NCS was significantly augmented) playing at high technical and artistic levels under the keenly insightful leadership of a conductor it (clearly) admires and respects. This was no routine evening of bombast, to be sure. The large tone poem emerged as a richly varied journey through selected highlights of Nietzsche’s most important novel (1883-5), a book that was just a decade old when Strauss was inspired to translate it into music. Curry enabled his substantial audience to experience it up close and personal with dynamic ranges running from barely audible to hall-shaking – but, due to consistently superior balance, never uncomfortably loud. The electronic organ may have been off-putting to some – we need a real organ in Meymandi! – but otherwise there can have been few if any complaints. The solo work was at the very highest levels, such as one might expect from world-class chamber musicians. The section work was precise and thoroughly disciplined, with incisive attacks and well-managed releases. The winds and brass were invariably evident but never intrusive. And the beefed-up strings sang clearly and often radiantly throughout. Three cheers for our orchestra’s accomplishments and Curry’s superb preparations and guidance!

The second half began with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, a “bridge” work, in many respects, between the classicism of the first three concerti and the overt grandeur of the “Emperor.” There’s so much to admire in the work itself it’s hard to know where to start, but for openers, take the opening – a short introduction by the solo piano that begins in silence and leads to the first statements by the orchestra. Pianist Solzhenitsyn,** returning to the Triangle for another welcome and revelatory visit, shed new light on this music with his clear and precise playing and his thorough understanding of the score. Because he is a conductor, he knows the music from both sides – and in Curry he found a wonderful artistic partner. Together, and with the help and support of the musicians of the NCS (reduced to close to “normal” size for this early-Romantic work), they brought the concerto to vivid life, eliciting at the end a considerable ovation of thanks and praise from the crowd. (For the record, the cadenzas were pure Beethoven – including the very brief first one, which is almost never heard.)

And then there was the overture – in this case, to the Dresden version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (which is to say, not the edition prepared for Paris that includes the famous Bacchanale). For this closing number, the augmentees came back onto the stage, so as in the Strauss there were folks aplenty to do this music full orchestral justice – and there were enough strings to enable the winds and brass to play out without dominating the proceedings. Curry has done a good bit of Wagner over the years, and he does it superbly. This was no exception. The music seemed to evolve in a very natural way, devoid of the bombast lesser stick-wavers sometimes mistake for passion. This reading, in contrast, made complete sense – and was ultimately immensely satisfying.

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This program will be repeated on 10/29 in the same venue. A limited number of tickets should be available at the door. For details, see the sidebar. And Curry also leads the Durham Symphony in a matinee concert on the afternoon of 10/30. For more information on that, see our calendar.

*For a thorough discussion of one of Maher’s NYP programs as recently re-created in Chicago, click here.

**For a fascinating interview with the pianist from the NCS’s Opus series (now part of the orchestra’s program books), click here.