The devotion of Durham Symphony Orchestra
In the depths of the Durham Arts Council building last week, the Durham Symphony Orchestra gathered to rehearse its upcoming “A Musical Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.”
It was a weeknight, and the musicians who came were volunteers and paid professionals, some in jeans and T-shirts, others in the business casual they wore all day at an office. But in the basement of the DAC, they raised their instruments and perfected their sound for Maestro William Henry Curry, the symphony’s conductor and music director. They will perform Sunday at the Durham Armory with guests the N.C. Central University and Alumni Choirs.
The concert will feature a range of works including Curry’s own composition, “Eulogy for a Dream,” plus selections by Duke Ellington, “La Forza del Destino,” an Italian opera overture by Giuseppe Verdi; and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with the choirs, among others.
The musicians started and stopped, started and stopped, as Curry praised them and gave them directions. “Are we dropping or coming up?” “Very good, very good.” “Begin a little less so we can make a crescendo.” “Brass, a minor point.” “Now, near the beginning.” In between, turning pages, pausing, tweaking. “Let’s do bar three and then we’ll see if it’s worthy to go on to bar four.”
After an hour and a half of rehearsal, a break.
James Rudisill, who plays French horn, joined the Durham Symphony Orchestra last season as a substitute and is part of the symphony this season. He received his master’s degree from the Royal Academy of Music in London and has performed with several orchestras, including the North Carolina Symphony.
Rudisill said he really enjoys the Durham Symphony Orchestra and the music chosen for the upcoming concert.
“Verdi is a very powerful piece, and I’m tickled to death to play William Curry’s own pieces. You can see he’s passionate about it. You can see it’s him,” Rudisill said. “And the French horns are absolutely in love with this conductor.”
Rudisill isn’t the only musician who praises Curry’s work, unprompted.
Shirley Violand-Jones has played clarinet with the Durham Symphony for about 30 years. She sees Curry’s influence from his time as resident conductor of the New Orleans Symphony in “Eulogy for a Dream,” which is based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and writings and premiered in 1999 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. For this performance, it is narrated by WTVD television anchor Anthony Wilson.
“It’s very emotionally done,” Violand-Jones said.
Violinist Evelyn Snyder is in her fifth season with the Durham Symphony Orchestra. It was Curry coming as music director in 2009 that compelled her to audition. He has also been resident conductor for the Baltimore Symphony and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, has conducted more than 40 orchestras, and is the resident conductor and Summerfest artistic director with the North Carolina Symphony.
“He makes it worthwhile, he truly does,” Snyder said.
Mary Sherk, interim executive director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra, noted Curry’s ability to listen and make subtle changes, like how to hold a bow a little differently to get the sound that he wants. Chosen from candidates from around the world, Curry “captured the heart of the musicians,” she said. He balances the passion that began as an all-volunteer community orchestra, she said, with professional musicians, too.
“They are seriously devoted to him,” Sherk said.
The Durham Symphony Orchestra has been one of the great success stories in his life, Curry said. What draws all the musicians together is their love of music, he said.
“Many of them have 9 to 5 jobs. They don’t need this, and yet they do need it because of their love of music and love of music making,” Curry said.
“It’s a jewel in the community. I knew I just had to polish up and be a good technician with my head in the engine,” he said. Curry said he has great respect and adoration for the orchestra.
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of picky details people in the audience don’t hear,” he said. Curry said the MLK tribute concert gets away from the predictable symphony concert. It will include classical music, a tribute to black composers, a gospel piece, a requiem, and “of course Duke Ellington.”
Ellington is inarguably the greatest composer of orchestral jazz, Curry said, and he has championed Ellington his entire career.
“People have eclectic taste,” Curry said. “My attitude toward music is if it sounds good, it is good,” he said.
Curry said that music is related to math, but it is also magical.
“It’s a spiritual thing,” he said.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: “A Musical Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.” by the Durham Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Durham Armory, 220 Foster St., Durham
TICKETS: Adults $15, seniors/students $10, $5 children under 12, free for children 3 and under.
MORE INFORMATION: Durhamsymphony.org