Twenty years is a long time to be at any job these days. William Henry Curry has reached that impressive milestone as resident conductor of the N.C. Symphony.
His concerts in Raleigh and Chapel Hill Friday and Saturday mark the last ones he’ll conduct in that position on the orchestra’s classical series in the Triangle. After finishing his duties with the orchestra’s Summerfest series in Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre in July, Curry is stepping down to concentrate on his job as music director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra and to have more time for composing.
Curry takes pride in his accomplishments with the N.C. Symphony. He conducted the first performances by the orchestra of various symphonies of Sibelius, Bruckner, Liszt and Tchaikovsky and has had the honor of conducting his own compositions. He’s also enjoyed introducing classical music to thousands of young people through the orchestra’s educational concerts across the state.
The 61-year-old Pittsburgh native knew he wanted to be a conductor from age 14 and has committed himself to communicating the joy of music ever since. He’s conducted more than 50 different orchestras in the U.S. and overseas, including stints as an opera and ballet conductor.
Curry’s program for this weekend’s concerts reflects his abiding love for Tchaikovsky’s compositions and his deep respect for the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a recent interview, he spoke about the pieces he’ll conduct and his mission to keep classical music relevant. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Q: What’s the background on your adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “Military March” that opens these concerts?
A: I found out his very last composition was a march composed as a favor to his cousin’s regimental band. Tchaikovsky wrote it as a piano piece, allowing the bandleader to fill out the parts. It had no introduction, no transitional material and no coda, so I decided to orchestrate and adapt it. You could say I wrote Tchaikovsky’s last piece for him!
Q: You’re also conducting your own composition, “Eulogy for a Dream.” What led you to this tribute to Dr. King?
A: I watched King’s funeral on TV at age 14. I used that memory in creating the piece, influenced by New Orleans jazz funerals and the moving experience of hearing “We Shall Overcome” at one of them. It came about from the sobering realization of human mortality during a mid-life crisis at age 40 and is dedicated to loved ones dead and alive.
Q: What’s it like to put such a personal composition out there to be judged?
A: It’s the scariest thing because you’re in competition with centuries of earlier composers and no one is really asking you to compose. Before the 1999 world premiere of “Eulogy,” I couldn’t sleep for two weeks, but at the performance people were standing before it was over.
Q: You’re finishing the concert with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Is it possible to find something new in such a familiar work?
A: It’s hard to clear your mind of all the things you’ve learned about such a piece, but you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t think there’s a hidden key to this symphony except that it’s some kind of love story. We’re lucky that composers don’t usually tell the source of their inspirations, so a piece can become our own journey.
Q: What is your mission as a conductor?
A: I look at all my programming, whether pops or classical, as an opportunity to educate. There should always be something wonderful on each program that people don’t know, along with recognizable favorites. For the educational concerts, I go out into the hall before the performance and talk to the kids to help erase the wall between them and the authority figure. I also try to give them the chance to find out that classical music can be as entertaining as any other type.
If you want to go
What: N.C. Symphony – William Henry Curry, conductor.
When and where: Noon and 8 p.m., Friday, March 4, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East South St., Raleigh. Noon show is a Friday Favorites shorter concert; 8 p.m. show is the full program.
Also 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5, Memorial Hall, 114 East Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill.
Tickets: $28 (March 4 Friday Favorites); $18-$66 March 4 evening; $10-$66 March 5.
Details: 919733-2750 or ncsymphony.org