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Raising the Baton

William Henry Curry's symphonic tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. marks the realization of the conductor's own personal dream


William Henry Curry, the 47-year-old associate conductor of the North Carolina Symphony, has never doubted his talent with the stick. As a would-be composer, though, he was a bundle of insecurities well into his professional career. He wasn't formally trained in composition. He had no credentials. Worse, he was way past claiming youth as a shield against invidious comparisons. To even think about putting his work on the same program with Beethoven was unsettling.

It was a mid-life crisis, even if he was still in his 30s. How to fight through it? Reading Martin Luther King Jr. helped embolden him, and suddenly the music was flowing onto the page. Curry's opening chords were martial in tone, and his lyrics--to be spoken in narration--were King's hard-edged words:

I've decided that I'm going to do battle for my philosophy.

You ought to believe something in life,

Believe that thing so fervently

That you will stand up with it till the end of your days.

There was a racial dimension, too, to Curry's problems. When he looked at the N.C. Symphony from his platform, he saw not one other black face. When he turned around, the audiences were overwhelmingly white as well.

Early in his career, it hadn't mattered, or so he thought. But now, the residual frustration was boiling up inside of him. He'd lost at least one chance to lead an orchestra--maybe more, but one for sure--because the people in charge feared that a black man out front would hurt with fundraising.

As Curry's composition continued, it expressed his anger, again with King as his "collaborator":

Freedom is never given freely by the oppressor;

it must be demanded by the oppressed.

The finished work is Curry's Eulogy for a Dream, which the N.C. Symphony will perform for the first time this week during celebrations for King's birthday. It is an 18-minute composition alternately majestic and sorrowful in tone, the music underscoring King's spoken themes of direct action, nonviolence, forgiveness, and God's redemption. Curry says the music tries to call King's funeral to mind along with the universal struggle with mortality and immortality.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man.

My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King's words will be read by William Warfield, the 80-year-old Chicago vocalist who was among the first African-American men in classical music, Curry says, and is still considered the greatest Porgy (from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess) of the 20th century.

Three performances are set. Tickets are still available last week to the first one, in Durham at the Carolina Theatre, on Thursday, Jan. 17. The two Raleigh performances at Meymandi Hall are sold out.

Curry grew up in Pittsburgh in a lower middle-class family and attended an all-black elementary school that didn't offer music instruction until he was in sixth grade. When it did, he took up the viola while his brother tried out the violin. Today they are, Curry believes, the only black brothers making a living in American classical music--which is something of a mystery since neither of his parents went beyond a bit of self-taught piano.

"I think there must have been a lot of stifled ability in the family," he says, laughing, "possibly in my grandparents."

As a teenager, Curry was taken under the wing of a local conductor, and by age 21, after training at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he was tapped to be assistant conductor of the Richmond Symphony. His writing aspirations were put aside and his conducting career took him to New Orleans, where he headed the symphony until it went bankrupt and disbanded during the 1990 recession. Years of guest conducting in the United States and Asia followed before he came to Raleigh five years ago.

"I'm very happy here. We have a great team, I think," Curry says, though at 47 he hasn't given up his desire to again lead his own orchestra.

He is not, however, competing to replace the retiring N.C. Symphony conductor, Gerhardt Zimmerman. The organization, he knows, will benefit from the excitement of a "new face," and meanwhile he is intent on finding time--in a busy conducting schedule--to work on a new orchestral piece.

Writing Eulogy has been a years-long project, an effort to synthesize "heart and brain in equal parts" so that the music is both well-founded and soaring. He was still tinkering with "the third or fourth or fifth" version of it a week ago when he took time out for an interview at the symphony offices in the basement of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts.

Eulogy was premiered in 1999, in its only live performance to date, by the Indianapolis Symphony. Actor Avery Brooks narrated. Curry conducted.

"I was so nervous I couldn't sleep for two weeks before the first rehearsal," he says. "But I wanted desperately to hear it, and when the orchestra started playing, the lushness of the sound was thrilling to me." The Indianapolis audience gave it a standing ovation that began even before the final notes were played.

After this weekend, Curry says he'll be ready to call the piece finished, and he hopes to find a publisher for it and have it recorded, perhaps as part of a compilation of music in tribute to the King holiday. He doesn't plan to write again about race; but, having come out of his crisis period, he cannot return to the days when he ignored the impact of race on his life and our society.

A big part of the symphony's mission is to put on concerts in elementary schools across the state. The goal is to hook at least a few kids on classical music by the end of the fourth grade, before peer pressure sets in and everyone else--by fifth and sixth grades--must be into rap or pop.

And when the Symphony comes to town, Curry's still the only African-American face black youngsters see. So he remembers King's words, and he's determined "to do battle" for what he believes. What he believes in is music, its power to express what he feels, and its power to heal. Especially now:

We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.

We must see that peace represents a sweeter music,

A cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. EndBlock

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