The Durham Symphony Orchestra launched its season on a smallish scale with a late-afternoon “Chamber Music Musicale” in the Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theatre. It’s not the first time the orchestra has presented its principals (mostly) in intimate settings, but it may have been the first time its music director took part in the proceedings. That would be William Henry Curry, the DSO’s third such leader, who was named Alan Neilson’s successor earlier this year, following an extensive and – some would doubtless say – exhaustive search. The orchestra was founded under the leadership of Vincent Simonetti, whose engagement with this fine community ensemble continues; he is its principal tuba. That means that Curry, a violist by training, is the first string-playing MD, since Neilson came to conducting after a distinguished career as a flutist. The DSO has long had strength in its string sections, and it’s a safe bet that tradition will continue under its new leadership.

Just how good the strings of the DSO are could be seen and heard during this program, which featured Curry as host, commentator and, at the end, conductor, too. First up were concertmistress Anne Leyland and pianist Katherine Lewis, performing the finale of Franck’s big, expansive Violin Sonata. The incisive playing set the tone for the afternoon, which was marked by keen attention to detail and outstanding ensemble.

The Carolina Clarinet Quartet (Brent Smith, Tara Glaspey, Shirley Violand-Jones, and Jim Williams) offered “It Takes Four to Tango,” a very attractive contemporary work by Daniel Dorf (one of three Americans whose music figured on this program), followed by the first part of Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, originally composed for flute and guitar. The (uncredited) transcription was excellent, and the juxtaposition of the two short works was an exceedingly happy one.

Movements from two superb piano quintets followed, with Lewis and Leyland joined by Shelley Livingstone, violin, Michael Castelo, viola, and Deborah Pittman, cello – all the string players are principals or section heads of the DSO. Dohnányi’s big C minor Quintet, his Op. 1, is a rarely-heard masterwork, and this reading of its finale surely made some listeners long to experience the rest of it. The same could be said of the exciting performance of the Scherzo (Furiant) from Dvorák’s comparably masterful Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 81.

From Dvorák, DSO’s artists made a transition to Claude Bolling’s Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio. Here, the players were cellist Gen Norton, bassist Casey Toll, keyboardist Doug Norton, and drummer Matt Vooris, and the results were – as is invariably the case with this music – impressive.

Pianist Lewis, who has made a big splash since arriving here not long ago – she seems to be turning up everywhere – gave a bravura performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 that made folks sit up and take notice. (She was the afternoon’s busiest musician, and she earned special praise from Curry in his closing remarks.)

An aptly-named “Fantastic Polka” by Arthur Pryor featured trombonist Dean Olah and the afternoon’s pianist. Curry had noted his intent to feature American music in this, his first season in Durham, and this polka was a fine example. Pryor’s life is worth a quick read – he played for Sousa, made many early records as a trombonist and as the leader of what was arguably the second most important band in our country at the time, and then he ended his life as a politician. Olah delivered the goods with great polish and high spirits.

And then, at the end, many of the aforementioned folks – Leyland and Livingston, Pittman, Violand-Jones, Olah, Vooris, and Lewis – were joined by flutist Irene Burke, trumpeter Michael Mole, and bassist Dan Thune for three brilliant transcriptions for theatre orchestra of famous rags by Scott Joplin, all conducted by Curry, who threw himself into the work with truly amazing enthusiasm and élan. Chamber music doesn’t normally need a conductor, and even when something is big enough to merit such leadership, it’s rare to find a music director or big-name maestro doing it. Years ago, Charles Dutoit turned up in Philadelphia at a little chamber music concert, where he led a complex little number – that concert lingers in the memory as a truly remarkable occasion, across years of live performances. Chances are this appearance by Curry on this chamber program may have a comparable long-term effect and impact. Here’s hoping….

The first full concert by the DSO will take place October 25, in the Carolina Theatre. See our calendar or details.

The same evening, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, the newest entry in the capital’s opera sweepstakes – Triangle Opera Studios, run by Christine Weidinger and Ken Smith – offered the second of two semi-staged performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In the cast were Jonathan Hart (Don Giovanni), Fred Rice (Leporello), Robert Chapman (Commendatore), Elizabeth Grayson (Donna Anna), Burt Bridger (Don Ottavio), Stephanie Lowd (Donna Elvira), Ariel Reed (Zerlina), and Kurt Melges (Masetto). ((The cast was somewhat different at the earlier performance. All but Chapman and Melges are students of Weidinger or Smith or both.)

The pianist was David Kelsey, and the chorus consisted of seven sopranos, four altos, and two each tenors and basses. The wonderful costumes were by David Serxner. Smith directed, and the sure hands of conductor Scott Tilley, a veteran of many regional performances, provided expert guidance and coordination. I am not sure that the subject was suitable for a place of worship or even worshipful reflection, but the cooperation of the UUFR was apparently essential to the undertaking, and there was a good crowd for this performance. Some fine singers took part, and the first act received a highly polished ensemble performance, in the best sense of that phrase. I regretted being unable to remain to see and hear the Don reap his rewards in Act II….

As Ken Smith noted in his introductory remarks, we don’t need a fourth opera company in Raleigh, but the work of this educational group, a studio offering performance opportunities to (mostly) young singers, could add a welcome new dimension to the scene. Here’s hoping….