The Durham Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of William Henry Curry, presented this concert of “Celebrations!” at the historic Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham. The celebrations included the bicentennial of the birth of the great German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the world premiere of a composition by Stephen Jaffe, and a performance by the latest Young Artists Competition Winner, Ledah Finck.

Opening with the stirring Act 3 Prelude and Bridal Chorus, from Wagner’s Lohengrin, the slightly beefed up* Durham Symphony Orchestra proclaimed their intention to make this a celebration to remember. The opening was crisp and energetic, and the bridal chorus arranged for orchestra delivered the beauty and majesty of this well-known, but usually misunderstood hymn of blessing for the wedded couple. *(There were a couple of additional woodwinds and brass to enhance the Wagner sound and to meet the score requirements of the Jaffe piece.)

“Still Life With Blue” by the very busy Duke University Mary and James H Semans Professor of Composition and active composer, Stephen Jaffe, was heard for the first time. It is ultimately the first movement of the suite, Southern Lights created in 2012 at the invitation of Music Director William Henry Curry for the Durham Symphony Orchestra. The opening theme is introduced by the solo trombone; strings come in to support the theme as it is played again by the alto saxophone with the trombone now enriching the harmony. The thematic material is developed rhythmically and harmonically with gentle blues chords. The idiom seems similar to that introduced to us by George Gershwin and Ferde Grofé. It is clearly classical in form and development and clearly jazz in derivation and style. It ends with a gentle timpani beat while the rich jazz harmonies fade to a quiet ending evocative of watching the sun light fade behind the hills from a weathered old porch.

Ledah Finck, hails from Boone, North Carolina and has been studying the violin since she was four. She finished her senior year of high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 2011-12 and is now in her first year as a music major at UNC Chapel Hill. On this program she played the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op 37 by Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). Playing a violin constructed by her father, a Master Cabinet Maker and craftsman, she dedicated her performance to the memory of her late teacher, Richard Luby.

Frick performed with calm confidence and brought forth a smooth silken tone in sustained passages and a well-managed lively sense of excitement in technically demanding passages. She was especially impressive in the cadenza maintaining a steady trill on one string, while producing the melodic dance around it with expressiveness.

After an intermission Maestro Curry returned to the podium to conduct a complete performance of Stephen Jaffe’s Southern Lights; “Still Life With Blue” is described above. “Cut Time II” is marked “Fast, bright, but slightly heavy (Gospel feel).” Its emphasis is riff-based rhythm. A clarinet note continues into the layered meditative coda, “A Smile”, which incorporates recordings of children learning and rehearsing music, as if to look forward into the future with a smile. (Comments from Jaffe’s notes.)

Wagner was approached by the American Centennial Committee in Philadelphia with a commission to compose a march in honor of the US Centennial in 1876. Though Wagner was always in need of money, he was uninterested in commercial projects. His ambition was to get into people’s emotions and change the world for the better. Never-the-less, he accepted the commission and by all evidence tossed off the twelve-minute piece with little thought and no inspiration. The “American Centennial March” sounds somewhat heroic, but about American as bratwurst and kraut. It has about as much passion in it, as a hot dog with no toppings. When Wagner wrote it, he was deeply immersed in rehearsals and other preparations for the first full performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival (August, 1876). It should be no surprise to us given the circumstances that we got flat beer for our big celebration. It was interesting to hear a good live performance of this seldom heard work and for that we are grateful.

Rienzi was Wagner’s first successful opera. It was built around Meyerbeer’s French Grand Opera style and it was probably Wagner’s biggest money-maker during his lifetime. He knew he could use that formula and write more, even bigger successes. But as pointed out in the preceding paragraph, Wagner had other ambitions. So instead of another grand opera which is clearly what the people wanted, he wrote a dark, psychological drama about a man cursed to sail the sea forever without relief and only the steadfast faithful love of a good woman can save him. So The Flying Dutchman was the first opera Wagner was willing to claim. He rejected Rienzi and it has never been performed at the Bayreuth Festival. Even so, the Overture to Rienzi is often performed in the concert hall. It is glorious music and the Durham Symphony Orchestra under Curry’s clear leadership provided an exciting and gratifying performance.