This is a milestone anniversary year for the Durham Symphony, whose roots some CVNCers have chronicled (in various publications) almost from the beginning. The first of three classical programs this season was presented on November 6 in the Carolina Theatre’s Fletcher Hall. It was at the customary time for these Sunday programs – 5:30 p.m.; this allows families to attend, although it interferes with dinner (for some) and makes for tough choices since the most rabid music lovers among us must also contend with other, often overlapping matinee concerts.

This little orchestra – it’s not so little anymore – began as a community effort, staffed by volunteer instrumentalists who were tired of driving to Elon to play. There are other performing arts parallels in Durham – the Choral Society of Durham was launched by singers who found it burdensome to trek to the capital, to work with the Raleigh Oratorio Society. The history of the DSO was nicely addressed in a recent Herald-Sun article by Susan Broili (10/20/05 – no longer online, alas, but it’s worth a search through the recycle bin) and in notes by Dorothy Kitchen and reflections by DSO artists contained in the orchestra’s handsome anniversary program booklet, which will be available at all concerts this season. The orchestra is a true treasure, and the fact that it’s better now than ever provides more than ample reason for celebration.

What the DSO does best is give concerts that involve community artists and engage music lovers. It runs one of the first important young artists programs in our neck of the woods, and it features the winners – four were selected from a field of 20 this go-’round – in its concerts. Maestro Alan Neilson has led the DSO since 1984, having inherited the reins from Founding Conductor Vincent Simonetti, whose service continues – as Principal Tuba (a logical fit for a guy who has found that tubas – and euphonia and such – are his bread and butter, literally). Neilson is also Music Director and Conductor of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. Both leaders came to their work in the community following service in the NC Symphony – Neilson was a flutist. That’s one more reason why the NCS is nice to have around. In the early days, the DSO used a lot of NCS people to help cover the bases. It’s a testimony to the musical strength of Durham that this is no longer the case because it’s no longer necessary: the DSO has the strength and proficiency it needs within Durham now, and that’s a big plus. What the DSO needs – like so many other community ensembles – is better support, in terms of finances and attendance. This anniversary season should by rights serve to shore up both.

The program got underway with the National Anthem during which some traditionalists looked around for a flag – unsuccessfully. (Surely the Carolina Theatre owns one….) The “overture” was “History’s Doorstep” by James Papoulis, who conducted the DSO during its recent Page Auditorium performance with touring eurythmists. The short work is a tone poem of sorts that summons up themes that reflect our nation without any direct quotes that leap off the page; it is, instead, an expansive, thoughtful, often dramatic score, now and then hymn-like, that does a nice job of reflecting some of the moods that surely wash over Americans as we struggle to gain some traction in the 21st century.

Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony wrapped up the first half. It figured in the aforementioned Duke program, so it was under the musicians’ fingers, and the DSO gave a glowing account of the marvelous work. The strings were for the most part exceptionally full and rich and unified, and there were fine contributions from the orchestra’s wind and brass and percussion sections. The reading was fairly straightforward – there wasn’t much portamento, as heard in classic old recordings – and the response of the audience was enthusiastic.

The program continued with another familiar classic, the great “Polovestian Dances” from Borodin’s Prince Igor. One can imagine newcomers to orchestral programs scratching their heads at this till the tunes start to unfold – several wildly popular “standards” from Kismet are based on themes from this sequence.

So to this point we had what constitutes Exhibit A insofar as the DSO’s place in our cultural hierarchy is concerned – a new work and several mainstream ones, handsomely realized by people who play in large measure because they love making music for themselves and for their community. Exhibit B, which is the perhaps even more important work of encouraging young people who are on the thresholds of their careers, came in the last section of the concert, when two of the DSO’s four concerto competition winners were featured. (The other two will perform with the orchestra on February 26.)

First up was Gentry Lasater, 16, a student of ECU’s Ara Gregorian, who attends New Bern High School. There must be something in the water in the Craven County town, for many fine artists (and teachers) have lived and worked there – Arvids and Nara Snornieks, James Meredith, Robert Griffin, Barry Bauguess, and, now, Lasater. She gave a glowing account of the first two movements of .Wieniawski’s Concerto No. 2, in d minor, Op. 22. Nowadays we tend to dismiss this music – and concerti by Vieuxtemps, too – as relics of little musical interest, so every time one of them pops up, we are reminded of how good they are. The Concerto in d minor is a minor miracle of tight coordination of the solo instrument with the orchestra, and with Lasater’s winning playing and the solid support provided by Neilson and the DSO, the results were terrific. Together, they turned an old chestnut into a thing of compelling importance, and everyone was warmly applauded when it ended.

There was an even greater uproar for the work of Ashley Martin, 15, a student of DSO member Yang Xi who attends Cardinal Gibbons High School. One suspects that some of the noise came from colleagues of her parents, who are major players in the music business in the Triangle. She essayed the first movement of Lalo’s magnificent Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21. Her playing was bold and assured, and the DSO again came through for her. In both instances, it was indeed a shame that the entire works weren’t played – the performances were that good. (Triangle residents will get to hear Martin again on 11/13 at Cardinal Gibbons HS, when she will give the world premiere of Joel Smith’s Violin Concerto – see our calendar for details.)

After the performances, there was a brief presentation of plaques by a rep of the DSO (along with many bouquets, of course), followed by a reception in the lobby. For details of the rest of the DSO’s 30th anniversary season, click here.