William Henry Curry was born to be a conductor. He will tell you that. If you give the resident conductor of the North Carolina Symphony another sentence, he'll tell you that he knows saying that—and, more still, believing it—is incredibly egocentric. Then again, Curry is saying he was born to be a conductor, a leader, a teacher, not a follower.
It's a good thing Curry was born ready to hoist the small but powerful wooden baton that has gotten so familiar with his right hand over the past four decades. He was just a 14-year-old viola student from Pittsburgh when he stepped in front of his first orchestra, thrown to the wolves by a conductor he still refers to as a father figure.
"One day, after my viola lesson, he said, 'I think you'd make a good conductor. I want you to conduct my orchestra next week,'" says Curry, the ebullience and warmth that light both his conversations and passion for music apparent in his broad, knowing smile. "'Wow, you've been reading my mind. Can I have some lessons before you put me in front of the orchestra?' He said, 'No, you can't be taught to conduct.'"
Curry laughs and reckons it's true. At home, his father agreed, telling his son that when he'd learned to swim, he'd simply been thrown into the pool by his own father. If he couldn't swim, he didn't have to stay in the water, of course. Likewise, if Curry couldn't conduct, his own enthusiasm for the viola and, later, his passion for composing could have taken him far.
But Curry could conduct, and that's what he's been doing since that day in Pittsburgh—in Richmond at the age of 21, then Saint Paul, Baltimore, Indianapolis, New Orleans, New York, Houston and, for the last 12 seasons, Raleigh. In that decade-plus, Curry's seen the N.C. Symphony, which began humbly as a Great Depression-era invention of the Works Progress Administration, find new life and its public star. Curry's expanded the repertoire, helped advocate for and guide it into its new regular home at Meymandi Hall and its summer home in Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park, and united the orchestra as it sought and eventually found a new music director earlier this decade. Now, he's leading the charge for the symphony's increase in community interaction, persevering with the zeal of a man smitten by a lifetime of music and a desire to share it.
"I'll never forget talking to an older violinist when I was in my early 20s, and I said, 'I'm in love with music. Does it get better, or does it get worse?" says Curry, now 53. "He said that it gets better. In the past 10 years, I've been ever more appreciative that my love for music grows. It's continually more incandescent."
Curry talks a lot about the ego satiation that comes through leading a successful orchestra, but he pairs it with talk about how much he enjoys the work that precedes that each time. Curry admits he's unwilling to lead the orchestra unless he feels he's capable of delivering the definitive interpretation of a piece. This makes him a perfectionist and a taskmaster, but he hopes he tempers it with the ecstatic way he handles music. After all, his chief early references as a musician, conductor and enthusiast are largely quotidian—Rodgers, Hammerstein, Bernstein. Those three, he says, loved music, and that was contagious.
"Bernstein's first book was called The Joy of Music. Of course there are other things—the duty, the responsibility, the burden, the work," says Curry. "But if it's not fun, it's not worth doing. It's one thing for me to love something, but it's twenty times more beautiful if I can share it with someone."
Mozart holds that promise for Curry, too: He gushes about the 18th-century Austrian composer, even though he considers his repertoire the most challenging classical body to interpret and conduct. ("His music is hemophiliac. It bruises easily.")
"Mozart is the greatest apostle of musical joy there ever was, and he's one of my absolute three heroes," says Curry. "He was a truth-teller—there's joy, the romantic spirit, the revelation of the tragic part of living."
For Curry, Mozart is the ultimate romantic, able to communicate a great range of emotions. That makes his work difficult and ultimately rewarding. Curry conducted hundreds of Mozart pieces for the first 20 years of his professional career, but he wasn't satisfied with a single one. Then, in 1998, after being with the N.C. Symphony for three seasons, he was leading his orchestra in Boone for a summer concert, playing Mozart's last and most famous symphony, No. 41, "The Jupiter Symphony." He had conducted the piece twice before. Finally, he got it right.
"I felt it was one of the great moments of my life. You have to find yourself in these composers," says Curry, explaining that—much like an actor does with a character in a script—a conductor has to climb inside of a piece if he's to make it work for himself and his symphony. "You have to let go and find what you dig about it. Then it works. Mozart—the great classicist, the guy with the wig, the holy of holies. I was scared. My entrée into his romantic soul took 20 years. Then I was happy."
The future of the N.C. Symphony makes Curry happy, too. He's been in the same place longer than any other active American resident conductor, and he's not planning on going anywhere. The symphony is currently negotiating professional recording contracts (a first in Curry's tenure), and plans for the symphony to tour Japan later this summer fell through at the last minute due to a funding glitch. But Curry says both goals—which he calls necessary qualifiers for a symphony that people respect worldwide—are within grasp.
Community outreach opportunities are also expanding for the symphony: This spring, they completed a tour of the state, performing a nightly concert combining traditional folk music and bluegrass with recording artists Riley Baugus and David Holt. High-profile engagements with celebrities like Randy Newman and Wynonna Judd and an upcoming run with Elvis Costello, as well as pop-culture flirtations with the music of the Beatles and Pink Floyd, have given the symphony new currency among people who don't consider themselves strict classical music fans.
As one of two professional musician children of a family without any musical training, finding new audiences interests Curry: He's aware that the gap between classical and popular music is increasing, the melody-centric tendencies of classical music (and, to an extent, rock 'n' roll and rhythm & blues) ceding to the more rhythmic orientation of hip hop. When he took the job in Raleigh, it meant passing on a conducting job in Atlanta, where the level of outreach between the orchestra and the African-American community is high. Each year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra brings classical music and gospel music together in a series of concerts. Curry feels that variety and imagination like that are central to connecting the work with new, distant audiences. After all, Curry refers to his relationship with his symphony as a marriage, and the outlook, he says, is good. He smiles as he says this, acting like someone ready to prove it's all true: "I'm excited as if I'm on a first date when I get in front of this orchestra. I respect them. I feel genuine affection for them. We're a real team."