The Durham Symphony’s on a roll. It’s the 20th anniversary of Music Director Alan E. Neilson’s leadership, and after some setbacks in the office and otherwise, things are looking up. Way up, if the orchestra’s concert of February 20, given in the main hall of the Carolina Theatre, is any indication. The band is of substantial size the equal of the official strength of the NC Symphony, indeed and it is playing better than ever. That’s not just idle hype, for your writer remembers a time when it was necessary to, let’s say, be kind to the DSO, all things considered. That’s certainly no longer the case. The strings play together and sound rich and full. Like the strings, the wind and brass sections include some of our region’s best, most experienced players. As in other community and town-&-gown orchestras, the DSO’s musicians play, for the most part, for the love of the art, and this, too, shows in everything they do, even if at times some of these groups fall a bit short of the mark. This explains again why we keep saying that our community orchestras are essential components of the musical fabric of our society. They’re certainly more important, day in and day out, than itinerant bands that are here today, gone tomorrow taking their ticket receipts with them….

On this occasion, two superior solo artists who just happen to be members of the DSO were featured. They are violinist Izabela Cohen and violist (and violinist) Yang Xi, and their mere presence, never mind the fact that they played so wonderfully, is something of a minor miracle, since both were injured she, quite seriously last year, in an accident near Hickory. So it was a special treat to hear them again in prominent solo roles, in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, and it is a delight to be able to report that they seem to be in better shape than ever. And that’s good, because the Mozart work is one that separates sheep from goats, as we wrote earlier this month when the Chapel Hill Philharmonia played it. As stated above, no excuses were needed in Durham, and no weasel words will creep in here. The playing by the solo artists was stunning and incredibly well matched, and the DSO provided the sort of support that would be eye- (and ear-) catching in any major metropolitan music center. It was that good, and everything about it was of comparable quality balance, blend, dynamic shading, etc. “Incredible” might raise suspicion among war-weary music vets, but it applies here especially since we know how far this outstanding community orchestra has come, since Neilson took the helm and before that, too.

The concert opened with a briskly-paced and dramatic reading of Beethoven’s “Prometheus” Overture and ended with a performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony the autumnal one. There was much to admire in the playing of the latter, especially, including some grand work from the woodwinds and brass, and some richness that surely surprised some in attendance. The hall itself is quirky, but Neilson always brings the strings forward on the stage, so the sound was quite good. I’m tempted to carry on more about the Brahms, but I can barely get over the Mozart, which was far and away the highlight of an especially successful and memorable evening. It was, in all likelihood, the best the DSO has ever played.

Just before the intermission, the DSO presented its “Share the Music” awards to the Herald-Sun, for its long-time support of the arts in general and the DSO in particular. Editor Bob Ashley was on hand to accept the award on behalf of the paper. This year’s individual award went to Maestro Neilson himself, in appreciation and celebration of the 20 years he has invested leading the DSO. Our readers will know that he is also the founding conductor of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra and that he’s led other ensembles and groups here over the years (including for a single season the UNCSO). Few people have had greater impact and influence on the Triangle’s music scene than he, so CVNC joins with the DSO in congratulating and thanking him for all he’s done and continues to do here. Salut!