William Henry Curry is settling in as Music Director and Conductor of the Durham Symphony Orchestra and the fit is obviously comfortable for Curry, the orchestra and the community. Today’s concert involved a tribute to Robert Ward, a Triangle treasure and a beloved friend of the community since he settled here in 1978 continuing an illustrious career as a composer and teacher. The program also included opportunities to hear three of the bright young winners from the DSO Young Artists Competition. As a part of the larger community the DSO and its audience are also participating in the “Orchestras Feeding America” Food Drive to benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC.

The program opened with the always exciting Egmont Overture, Op. 84, by Beethoven. Composed some two years after the Fifth Symphony, it is a culmination of his so-called middle period. The Overture is the opening of a set of ten pieces of incidental music for Goethe’s play of the same name. The heroic deeds of the Count of Egmont provided Beethoven a perfect vehicle for the expression of his political and humanistic values. Goethe himself declared that Beethoven had expressed his intentions with “a remarkable genius.”

From the first full rich chord it was clear that the orchestra was focused and this concert was going to be special. The biting string attacks were amazingly crisp and vigorous. The legato passages were as smooth as silk. The brass fanfares and the full orchestra sections clearly expressed the hero brought to life in Beethoven’s music. It was a very solid and thrilling performance.

As a tribute to the great American composer living in our midst, the orchestra next performed Robert Ward’s A Western Set, a suite of music from his opera Lady Kate. In his introduction to the music, Curry reiterated the orchestra’s commitment to perform at least one selection by an American composer in each concert. The opera takes place in Colorado in the 1870s and is spiced with tunes reminiscent of that period. The opening section, “Celebration Overture,” was mostly dance tunes with a notable spritely trumpet solo near the end. The second movement is called “A Prairie Romance” and that pretty much sums up the character of the music; rich, lovely and longing. The final section, “Hootenanny,” combines different moods and styles of music. One theme developed a pattern of triplets followed by duplets in a vigorous dance episode. There was a shimmering violin solo and near the end a very nice solo trombone passage. The piece closed with a chorale-like melody based on the tenor’s big aria in the opera. The orchestra was on its toes throughout and the audience showered extended applause on Ward who was in the theatre.

To close the first half of the concert, we were treated to a performance by two of the winners of the DSO’s Young Artists Competition. Rashad Hayward from Raleigh and Charlton Holt from Wake Forest have both given earnest attention to the clarinet and to developing their performance and artistic skill as soloists and as members of various ensembles. They performed together the Finale from the Concerto No. 2 in E Flat for two clarinets and orchestra by Franz Krommer.

Krommer was a Moravian composer whose life span encompassed the Classical Era. He was born nearly four years after Mozart and died a few years after Beethoven. He was a prolific composer with at least three hundred published compositions. Among his most performed works today are his woodwind ensembles and concertos. His Concerto for two clarinets provided a unique opportunity for the two talented winners of the DSO Young Artists Competition. The music was an invigorating and challenging tour de force for the two young men. To tell the truth, the orchestral accompaniment was rather bland and uninspired, but the double solo was a delightful showpiece for the promising clarinetists.

After the intermission break, Curry provided some introductory background for the next selection, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, the well-known “Unfinished Symphony.” The passion in Curry’s comments was obvious as he commented on the unsolvable mystery of this Symphony’s truncated existence. He spoke of Schubert’s knowledge of his terminal illness and his wrestling with the meaning of his mortality. There are no printed background notes for the DSO concerts. If there were we might not have had the intense revelatory comments of Curry to prepare us for the truly inspired performance of this unique symphonic gem.

The brief brooding introduction, the almost unbearably heavenly melodies, the angry interruptions were all played with a depth of meaning that can only be described as inspired and inspiring. The second movement continued with Schubert’s attempts at reconciliation to the quiet and peaceful resolution with which this assuredly complete, though unfinished, symphony concludes. It was a remarkable and memorable experience and the audience seemed to me to want to do something other than applaud at the end. For me it would have been most satisfying to sit in silence reflecting on what we had just experienced from beyond this realm. It is my impression that this was not just a good afternoon, but what we will come to expect in a very short time from Curry and the DSO.

But life must go on and indeed it did with a thrilling, life-affirming performance of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D. The charming soloist was another of the DSO’s Young Artists Competition winners: Rebecca Telford-Marx, a 17 year old student at Jordan High School in Durham. She has studied with Marsha Edwards, Dorothy Kitchen and Eric Pritchard, and with credentials like that she has blossomed with impressive skill. She played with confidence, sensitivity and technical dynamism that wowed the audience.

The fourth DSO Young Artists Competition winner, violinist Kevin Zheng will perform the first movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. at the March 13 Classical Concert. Also appearing on the concert will be the Durham Children’s Choir, Scott Hill, director. See our calendar for details.

*DSO Young Artists Competition: The Future Looks Bright!

by Ken Hoover

March 13, 2010, Durham, NC: This is an addendum to the March 7 Durham Symphony Orchestra concert reviewed immediately above. A week later, the DSO provided a free concert at the Emily K Center in Durham along with the Durham Children’s Choir and featuring the fourth Young Artists Competition winner, Kevin Zheng.

The orchestra, under Maestro William Henry Curry’s direction, repeated the thrilling Egmont Overture by Beethoven and the moving first movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” from last Sunday’s concert.

The Durham Children’s Choir, some 90 young voices under the direction of Scott Hill (with the assistance of associate conductor, Dene Byers and accompanist, Vangie Poe), sang with vigor and enthusiasm several selections. Included in their program were African-American Spirituals, “Double Trouble” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a choral arrangement of an aria from Handel’s Opera Rinaldo, and “I Bought me a Cat” from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs. The last three were with the orchestra accompanying them. What an amazing job Hill has done with this group since its inception in 2004! Opportunities such as this provide these young people experiences they will never forget and build a brighter future for them and for the community as a whole.

The concert closed with DSO Young Artist Competition winner Kevin Zheng playing the first movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major. Zheng is a 10th grader currently studying with Kevin Lawrence at the UNC School of the Arts. He has been playing violin since he was seven, studied under Richard Luby of UNC-CH, and has already collaborated with several well-regarded musicians. His performance demonstrated amazing technical competence, musical sensitivity, and a commanding stage presence – in spite of a torrential downpour outside that at times threatened to drown (figuratively and literally) every sound in the building.

After hearing the DSO again, enjoying the Durham Children’s Choir and being wowed by Zheng’s outstanding performance, all I can say is that we have much to look forward to. I am confident the future will be better than the past.