The Durham Symphony Orchestra opened its 2012-13 Season, its fourth under the leadership of William Henry Curry, with a concert of music that has connections to Durham Sister Cities around the world. The concert was kicked off by special guest, Triangle Taiko – a traditional Japanese drumming group based in Raleigh. They performed “Chichibu Yatai-bayashi,” a high-energy piece with martial-arts-derived movements and sounds, to the delight of the audience. Durham’s sister city in Japan is Toyama, set on a delta plain between the Sea of Japan and towering mountains.

The orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s “March Solennelle” in D as a tribute to the Russian Sister City, Kostroma, located some 200 miles northeast of Moscow. This seldom-performed work was commissioned by the School of Jurisprudence and is sometimes referred to as the Jurist’s March. It is typical Tchaikovsky though not on the same level of march as the “1812 Overture” or the extraordinary third movement march of the Sixth Symphony. The orchestra provided a crisp and lively performance which made an ideal bridge between the Taiko and the next piece on the program

Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite has been an audience favorite ever since its premiere in 1923. It was originally composed for military band and scored for full orchestra the next year. This is a piece of music that delights the ear by weaving together a number of charming English folk songs. It begins with a March (“Seventeen come Sunday”), continues with a lilting Intermezzo (“My Bonny Boy”), and concludes with another March (“Folk Songs from Somerset”). The Durham Symphony under Curry’s experienced leadership was just about dead-on perfect in this performance: precise, lively, balanced, and phrased with grace.

Durham’s sister city in England is (surprise, surprise) Durham, located in the northeastern part of the country and best known for its massive Gothic cathedral.

It is the Durham Symphony’s commitment that on each concert shall be at least one work by an American composer. Tonight’s pick was Samuel Barber’s iconic gem, “Adagio for Strings.” It gave the very fine string sections of the orchestra an opportunity to show their stuff. The upper strings shimmered with light and silky phrasing. When the lower strings took over, all was warmth and comfort. The “Adagio for Strings,” as Curry mentioned in his introduction, is America’s comfort in times of grief, sweetly melancholy and inspirationally uplifting at the same time.

After intermission, Brahms’ Second Symphony came to life on the stage of Fletcher Hall. Having hesitated with the consciousness of Beethoven’s greatness hovering over him, Brahms struggled with his First Symphony for some fifteen year before finally publishing it in 1876. It is an epic and stormy work worthy in every respect in the symphonic form. Having gotten the first out of the way, he moved on with the second, which was published just one year later. It is a more relaxed work, somewhat lighter than the first, but true Brahms through and through. There is a moment in the first movement where the cellos and violas sing the gorgeous second theme that is a highlight of melodic and harmonic supremacy. Brahms develops and weaves his themes in such a masterful way that every moment of this symphony is a delight to hear, and Curry led the orchestra in a magical performance.

The second movement adagio is a little more brooding than the first and uses a variation form of development. The third movement contains very lightly articulated sections, which are likely due to the influence of Mozart or Schubert. This lighter element provides a contrast to the previous two movements. It is ideal Brahms charm and was played superbly, especially by the horns and woodwinds.

The fourth movement begins with busy-sounding (but quiet) strings and develops in lively sonata form. Toward the end of the symphony, descending chords and a maze-like run of notes by various instruments repeat the second theme, which leads to a blaze of brass as the symphony ends in a gloriously triumphant mood. The Durham Symphony Orchestra is truly coming into its own under the baton of Curry. They are a treasure to be cherished by the thriving Durham community.

In addition to the orchestra’s sterling performance, concert-goers were regaled by citizens dressed in period attire reflecting the countries of the sister cities. There was even an English “Bobby” in the lobby. Other sister cities are Arusha, Tanzania, a city in Africa that sits at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Zhuzhou, China, just added to the family this year. In the lobby there were also two Japanese musicians playing traditional Japanese string instruments. It was a totally entertaining and rewarding concert experience.