The huge, sprawling Seventh Symphony of Anton Bruckner was the main event on the NC Symphony’s latest pair of Raleigh classical offerings, heard in Meymandi Concert Hall on November 8. It was given in Robert Haas’ version with additional modifications (including the much-debated cymbal crash in the second movement), and it was led with keen passion and insight born of years of study by William Henry Curry. The program was heard the night before in the same venue and the evening before that in Southern Pines.

As Curry noted in a fine interview with Roy C. Dicks, published by the News & Observer (at [inactive 5/04]), Bruckner is, any way you cut him (and maybe especially if you don’t …), a hard sell – for music lovers who are unfamiliar with his stately expositions and for marketing departments who perceive that programming his music will keep patrons away in droves. This prompts thoughts on why we bother to fund orchestras in the first place…; it seems to me that one of the reasons is to enable the public to hear symphonic music played live, in tolerable venues (and Meymandi is an outstanding hall), by skilled artists, guided by superior conductors. The fact that Bruckner has been rarely heard here is somewhat surprising, given the NCS’ periodic infatuation with Mahler, which requires larger orchestras, generally speaking. Bruckner’s Seventh is scored for a standard band with double winds, augmented by four Wagner tubas – and yes, they were there. The strings were slightly augmented. It would have been nice to have had more, and we hope the NCS will eventually expand. In this case, twice as many strings would not have hurt, in a few places. But by any large, Curry tended to balances with exceptional skill, and the brass overpowered their brethren rarely. It is a substantial piece, and on this occasion it took 64 minutes, from start to finish. Along the way, many felicitous touches were revealed, thanks in large measure, I think, to Curry’s preparation and his skill in leading the orchestra. One could append a laundry list of examples, but lest this review wind up as long as the Seventh, one will suffice: about halfway into the second movement, there’s a bit of music I have dubbed “dancing along the ridge,” where the high strings swirl like eddies. This section can separate the sheep from the goats, but here it was as well played as I have ever heard it. It helps that Curry was a violist, but that personal background did not lead him to slight the winds and brasses in any way. Not everything was shipshape – those Wagner tubas redeemed themselves after some intonation problems, early on. But the overall results reflected the excellence of the individual musicians, the players’ increasing ability to perform together in ways that enable whole sections to speak as single but large instruments, and – in this instance – the importance of the ensemble working with a conductor whose leadership is by and large not imposed but rather serves to enable the orchestra to perform at its very best. The performance was often breathtaking, and in many ways. Frequently, the music simply gleamed. And the Adagio, a memorial to Wagner, was heart- wrenching. (If Wagner had written symphonies in his maturity, they might have sounded somewhat like this.) Just getting through a piece like this takes stamina like that required of professional athletes, and it was indeed amazing to watch the most incisive players – Principal Cello Bonnie Thron may be cited as an example – digging into the music as the work reached its conclusion and showing even greater energy levels than at the outset. Curry, too, was remarkable in this regard, bringing the score to a close with incredible animation that reflected his personal commitment to the work. A key to all this must rest in the leader’s secure senses of architecture and line, senses rarely matched anywhere and hereabouts absolutely not exceeded. Thinking back over my 51 years here, and taking into account all the wonderful performances by visiting orchestras (back when world-class orchestras visited our city with some regularity…), I can say that this reading of the Bruckner must rank among the finest orchestral experiences of my life in Raleigh. Some will surely find this statement bold and perhaps even reckless, and I’ll grant it may be colored by a measure of home-town pride, but when the chemistry is just so, this can be a truly great orchestra, and on this occasion, it was one, assuredly.

The program might have been cast as music for brass and for strings. The concert opened with a very early “orchestral” work, a Canzon by Giovanni Gabrieli, arranged for three choirs of modern brass instruments by Robert D. King. As it happens, this piece was not rediscovered till 1963, but similar works by G. Gabrieli have been played on symphony orchestra concerts since at least the middle of the 20th century. The NCS artists, playing in three groups in the choir stalls, realized the short number handsomely; Curry stood alone on the main stage to direct it, and he was dramatically illuminated by an overhead spotlight shining down on the podium. The other work on the first half was the great chestnut for strings by Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. When the Maestro briefly introduced the program, he noted that all three pieces were in fact first performances by the NCS on the Raleigh classical series. In the case of this jovial and much-overplayed serenade, that is hard to fathom. With Acting Associate Concertmaster Rebekah Binford acting as Concertmaster, and with the splendid principals of the other string sections on hand to form with her a solo quintet, which from time to time provided bracing and heart-warming contrast with the massed strings, and with the ensemble seated in “classical” style – the violins were divided, the cellos were where the seconds normally are, and the basses were along the back – the results were bracing.

Maestro Tonu Kalam, Music Director of the largest orchestra in this neck of the woods, the UNCSO, gave the pre-concert lecture. Those who missed his remarks can read about the program in Scott Warfield’s commendable notes that are graced with quotes from Curry about his long-term fascination with the evening’s main attraction. The NCS usually has student ensembles on hand to entertain the early birds, and there was a sign announcing Ligon’s Silver Strings, but the youngsters never materialized. That’s too bad, because they missed the chance to hear a great concert.

There were too many empty seats. One of the NCS staffers told me it was due to the lack of both a guest soloist and a guest conductor. Methinks that’s a marketing department explanation, which brings us back where we began. Orchestras are big, expensive operations, and one cannot justify keeping ’em on hand merely to provide backup for visiting pop stars or circuit-riding classical soloists or to serve as pit bands for opera or ballet. All these are nice things to have, but they are – or should be – adjuncts to the main mission of a fine orchestra, which is to play symphonic music as well as it can. We have a wonderful orchestra here and, in Curry, a highly skilled maestro with intelligence and imagination. Many of this orchestra’s best concerts in recent years have been given under his direction, and it’s a fact that the group simply sounds better when he is at the helm than when others lead it. That he is not on the short-list of finalists for Music Director – that he is not even in the running, officially – must have something to do with marketing, too. Otherwise it is so inexplicable as to defy reason and logic.