The Durham Symphony celebrated the great American composer Charles Ives and two Russian masters, Arensky and Tchaikovsky, during its fall classical concert, presented in the Carolina Theatre. Music Director William Henry Curry did the conducting honors, and the substantial orchestra – there are 74 players on the roster – sounded terrific throughout the afternoon, exuding new strength in the brass and wind sections, particularly.

Following the national anthem, the brasses were on full display in the oh-so-brief Fanfare from Dukas’ one-act ballet, La Peri. This little curtain-raiser and the ubiquitous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” are the fastidious and hyper-self-critical composer’s best-known works, and both are of such high quality as to make one wonder what was lost in the proverbial fire. (His strangely powerful Blue Beard opera was revived in New York in 2005.)

The strings then had their moment in the sun, playing Maestro Curry’s arrangement of Charles Ives’ Variations on “America” (actually, as he explained, an introduction, theme, five variations, and two brief but prickly interludes). William Schuman’s orchestration is better known, but Curry’s transcription seems to bring out the voices a good deal better – at least as played on this occasion. It also sounds a lot more like Ives’ original, for organ, particularly with six robust double basses realizing the pedal parts.

Curry spoke about the “Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day” section of the Holidays Symphony, too – and had supplied as well the excellent program notes. It is as he mentioned “mature” Ives (whereas the organ piece was from the pen of a wild and wooly – and insanely precocious – 18-year-old). There are all the essential Ivesian fingerprints on “Thanksgiving” including different tunes in different keys, borrowings and transformations of other material, and that truly unique musical imagination.

It’s not easy, but as played by the Durham Symphony, it didn’t sound too incredibly difficult. For folks hearing Ives for the first time, it was an ok choice, but the audience seemed restless, and one little child kept up a bleating counterpoint during the work’s most delicate central part. (Parents: if they don’t hush when you tell ’em to, several times, they’re probably too little to bring….) Still, enough could be heard to demonstrate Ives’s magic. (I was introduced to his Three Places in New England when I was 12, and I’ve remained grateful to my guide – retired NCSU philosophy professor James Lawrence Cole – and enthusiastic about Ives ever since. This is music that can truly change your life.)

Since the Ives ends with a Thanksgiving hymn, Curry then led a sing-along of one that’s reasonably well known nowadays, Valerius’ “Hymn of Thanksgiving.” These sorts of things let everyone present claim to have “sung with the Durham Symphony” – and under the baton of the Maestro, too!

Following intermission came the afternoon’s real novelty, the Overture to Anton Arensky’s ballet Egyptian Nights. It was played with vigor and enthusiasm and great precision, and it made a fine impression – fine enough that it would have been nice to have heard more of the score. Instead, there were three outstanding and very popular excerpts from Swan Lake, one of the Big Three Tchaikovsky ballets. Curry loves this music – he recently devoted an entire concert to this composer (for a review of which, click here) – and I can’t think of anyone within miles of here who delivers it with greater commitment. That passion was evident as well in the concert’s closing work, the “Marche Slav,” with its hymn tune (“God Save the Tsar”) given considerable prominence in this glowing and assured reading.

The crowd responded enthusiastically, with protracted applause and cheers.

Next up for the DSO: the annual holiday pops concert, at the Durham Armory, on December 3. For details, see our calendar.