The Durham Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of William Henry Curry celebrated the past and the future in a concert at the Carolina Theatre. Beethoven’s Second Symphony was performed in memory of Alan Earl Neilson who died last week after near forty years of brightening the music scene in the Triangle. Beginning as Principal Flutist with the North Carolina Symphony in the 1970-71 season, he later became Founding Music Director of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra and long-time Music Director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra. (See this CVNC article for more information regarding Alan Neilson.)

The celebration of the future was the second half of the concert, which featured three outstanding winners of the Young Artist Concerto Competition.

Opening the program was the “Danse Negre,” Op. 35, No. 4, by the remarkable Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who died of pneumonia at the young age of 37. “Danse Negre” comes from a sparkling suite of dances, rich in rhythm and romantic harmony. Living in the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, Coleridge-Taylor could hardly have avoided the trend-making composers of the time, especially Wagner and Mahler. The symphony performed the work convincingly with spritely tempos and an especially fine lyrical middle section played by the strings with a mellow woodwind support.

Alan Neilson was known to be especially fond of and competently familiar as a conductor with the music of Beethoven, so it was entirely fitting that this performance of the Second Symphony was done as a memorial to him, as Maestro Curry introduced it. The Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36, was written at a time when Beethoven was forced to face the hearing problems that were worsening and seeming incurable. This Symphony does not seem to reflect those woes. It does not quite display the giant he was to become, yet there are hints of the future in this cheerful and unassuming work. The first movement is perhaps more thoroughly and thoughtfully developed than any symphonic movement up to this time. Beethoven’s marvelous transformations of the main theme reflect development at its fullest. The second movement is typical of Beethoven’s lyricism, building to climaxes with unexpected key changes and cadences that lead into yet another transformation of the melody. The third movement is an irresistible dance in 6/8 time taking the place of the usual third-movement minuet. The fourth movement hints at the heroism that would stun the musical world in his next symphony. The performance by the orchestra was well managed by maestro Curry with spirited tempi, crisp ensemble, and interpretive dynamics that communicated a fitting tribute to the long-time leader of the DSO and friend of the Triangle at large.

The first of the winners of the Young Artist Concerto Competition to perform with the symphony was violist Christian Kazmierski. He chose to play the first movement of the daunting Viola Concerto composed by William Walton in 1929 for the renowned violist Lionel Tertis. At first reading, Tertis declined the work, and it was premiered by the great German violist and composer Paul Hindemith on October 3, 1929, with Walton conducting. The great William Primrose was a highly regarded interpreter of this work.

Kazmierski began the study of the violin at age eight and the viola a year later. He was especially attracted to the deeper and more powerful intonation of the slightly larger instrument. He has studied widely and performed with several orchestras and ensembles. He currently is furthering his studies at The Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. His performance of the Walton Concerto was done with technical competence and interpretive skill. The instrument sang richly and gloriously in his hands.

We next were dazzled by the young and remarkably talented saxophonist Steven Banks. He is a native of Winston-Salem and is currently a high school senior at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He performed the first movement (marked “Energetic”) of American composer Paul Creston’s Alto Saxophone Concerto. After a brief orchestral introduction, the soloist took off like a rocket with a couple of ascending riffs that had more notes than you could count in the time they were played. His fingers flying on the keys and his embouchure firm on the mouthpiece, Banks played a breath-taking performance with only a few orchestral interludes to give him (and us) a chance to catch a breath. This young artist’s future is wide open to him.

The third Young Artists Competition Winner was the impressive violinist Caroline Cox. She is a junior at East Carolina University where she is pursuing a double major in both piano and violin. Her passionate style of performance and her double interest is reminiscent of the renowned Julia Fischer, who recently released a DVD recording of the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No. 3 and the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor. Who knows what the future holds for this promising young artist? Her performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, was distinctively her own. It was epitomized with passion, precision, and poise. Her technical skill in handling the double string complexities came across as effortless as a simple lullaby. And, most important of all, the performance was emotionally moving.

Of course these outstanding performances would have not been possible without the steadily improving capabilities of the Durham Symphony Orchestra under the outstanding, sensitive, and knowledgeable leadership of Maestro Curry. Their accompaniments of the soloists were balanced and responsive in every respect.

This concert underwent a number of last minute alterations due in part to the recent death of Alan Neilson and also difficulties in obtaining performance rights for music by one of our “Triangle Treasures” (my term), T.J. Anderson. The closing selection was “American Fantasy” by Victor Herbert, of operetta fame. Originally “a brass band composition, it galloped through’ The President’s March,’ ‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River,’ ‘The Girl I left Behind Me,’ ‘Dixie,’ ‘Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,’ and finally, …’The Star Spangled Banner.'” (from Time Magazine review of a concert by the “Band of Gold” conducted by Leopold Stokowski, Jun 2, 1924).

For future performances of the Durham Symphony conducted by William Henry Curry, see our calendar.