When, 24 years ago, Vincent Simonetti, Founding Conductor of the Durham Symphony Orchestra , decided that it had to be either a community orchestra or his burgeoning tuba business, but it couldn’t be both, he left the orchestra’s podium (but came back, in due course, as its Principal Tuba…), and the customary music director search was undertaken. Among the distinguished guest conductors in the ensuing months were Arturo Ciompi, just back in town from a major New York sojourn; Scott Tilley, Artistic Director of Triangle Opera Theatre; Robert Ward, not too long retired as Chancellor of the NC School of the Arts; and Alan Neilson, who was already ensconced (as the founding MD) at the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. To make a longish story short, Neilson got the job…, and he’s giving it up now, after 23 years of service.

It’s a remarkable legacy, but it’s only part of the Maestro’s gift to our community at large. He came to North Carolina as Principal Flute of our state orchestra, where he met Vince Simonetti, the NCS’ Principal Tuba. It wasn’t too long after John Gosling took over the NCS from Benjamin Swalin that our community orchestras in the Triangle began to grow, too. There’s long been an ensemble at State College (now NC State University), but its town-&-gown approach seemed limiting to some players, so a core group broke off — it was somewhat akin to the calving of icebergs from glaciers — and Neilson became the conductor of the then-new Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. The DSO gig began several years later. And there was one promising but ultimately abortive effort to combine the orchestras of the two cities, in the form of the Arts Festival Orchestra, which gave some concerts in RTP in 1987.

Through all this, Neilson persevered, making a living in music by leading two community orchestras as each weathered various crises and downturns (a battle for control in Raleigh, the tragic death of a cellist in Durham, and — everywhere and constantly — struggles for support in an arts-rich area…). Along the way, he proved innovative beyond all expectations, leading more than his share of new works, directing complete Beethoven symphony cycles in both cities, and launching concerto competition concerts in three places — Raleigh, Durham, and at Meredith College. Along the way, Neilson’s orchestras grew in size and quality, till there were many times when his reviews were as favorable as those accorded leaders of groups with far bigger budgets. Part of the reason, of course, was the commitment of his players, many of whom have made music for the love of it for as long as Neilson has — or almost as long. To be sure, he’s leaving some substantially large shoes to fill in Durham; and it’s certainly a very good thing that he’s staying on in Raleigh for the time being, so the Triangle isn’t obliged to search for new leadership in its two largest cities, simultaneously.

The February 17 concert began with the National Anthem, robustly sung by the small crowd in Durham’s Carolina Theatre as the orchestra played. This year’s concerto competition yielded three winners, and first up was Duke junior Richard Zhu, Concertmaster of the Duke SO and a student of Eric Pritchard. He performed the finale of Brahms’ Violin Concerto with evident technical skill and understanding, although the mostly brisk tempi seemed to result in some scrappy playing from Zhu and the orchestra, too. Much more impressive was the work of 13-year-old Brandon Cheng, Principal Cello of the Ligon Magnet GT Middle School’s Silver Strings Orchestra, whose reading of the first movement of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C was ravishing all ’round; the solo part seemed to glow from within, and the orchestra was with him all the way. Cheng studies with Leonid Zilper, of the NC Symphony, who seems to be as successful in finding and nourishing young cellists as John Ruggero is with young pianists. Last but hardly least was Jessica Sun, a senior at East Chapel Hill High who is Concertmaster of the Duke University String School Youth Orchestra and who studies with Dorothy Kitchen and with Pritchard, too. She played Chausson’s magnificent “Poème,” surely one of the finest examples of French impressionist music. It began magically, with a short solo by Michael Castelo, Principal Viola, and continued with superior work from the DSO’s winds. The violin solo was fluid, flexible, free, and, for the most part, stunning. The work made a tremendous impression — overall, it may have been the DSO’s finest effort this season.

It might have been enough to have ended with the Chausson, the high water mark of the first half, but Neilson then turned to Robert Ward’s admirable “Jubilation” Overture. It was good of the DSO to celebrate this resident Durham composer in his 90th year with one of his most stirring works. Dorothy Kitchen’s program notes remind us that “Jubilation” was first written for band, but it works well in its orchestral guise — so well, indeed, that it always strikes this listener as the great American overture, so wonderfully does it speak of our vast plains and magnificent vistas. (Ward himself was almost certainly in Raleigh during this performance, for the Triangle Wind Ensemble presented a concert devoted entirely to the master’s works for band.)

Following the intermission there was a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 that at once brought back many memories — Neilson has led his orchestras in lots of Beethoven — and seemed to clear new territory, too, given the freshness and verve of the playing. He knows it by heart, of course, and clearly loves it, and his affection for the piece — and for his players — was evident throughout. It was the right work for an exit, and at the end, the applause and cheers from the audience and the musicians went on for many minutes.

Along the way, Neilson has garnered several awards and honors, and justly so, for it’s a fact that few musicians — and particularly few of those without permanent classroom or studio bases — have done so much for their art for as long as he. The Durham Symphony acknowledged as much when, in the last hurrah in the Carolina Theatre, Neilson received the orchestra’s “Share the Music” award. Sharing the music has been the consuming mission of this Maestro since he arrived in North Carolina. As the psalmist said, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Notes: Maestro Neilson leads the DSO for the last time as its MD on February 24, at 3 p.m., at the Emily Krzyzewski Family Life Center, at the conclusion of which he becomes Music Director Emeritus.

And finally, the DSO’s season isn’t over yet – three pops concerts remain, all to be conducted by Andrew McAfee. For details of these, click here.

P.S. Jim Wise, writing in The Durham News, did a fine tribute to Neilson, published online on 2/16, at http://www.thedurhamnews.com/front/story/118826.html [inactive 3/08].