Last night, I attended a wonderful lecture at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh North Carolina. Associate conductor of the North Carolina Symphony and Musical Director of the Durham NC Symphony, William Henry Curry, presented a wonderful lecture on the life and music of Charles Ives . He will be conducting Ives's 2nd Symphony next Friday night at Meymandi Hall with the North Carolina Symphony. Quail Ridge Books is a progressive retailer that frequently features speakers, musical performances, and authors. They have a magnificent facility and really provide a great scholarly environment for folks to experience these educational and artistic events.
I found Curry's remarks to be insightful at every level . I took 16 students from the North Carolina School of Science and Math to the lecture as well. The kids were engaged throughout and the folks at Quail Ridge Books were very excited to see such a wonderful group of high school students at this lecture.
I learned a lot about Charles Ives last night and hearing it through the perspective of William Henry Curry was particularly interesting. He covered lots of the standard Ives details which include his commitment to dissonance as a reflection of the sounds he heard in nature and music around him, his love of patriotic music and folk songs and how he incorporated them into his classical music, and, some things that I didn't know before. One of my favorite aspects of Ives' composition is that he would depict sounds that happened accidentally around us - like folks singing out of tune, random sounds and noises, marching bands in 2 keys being heard on the street at the same time, etc. - and include them in his composition. In my 20th Century Music History courses, I admiringly refer to this uniquely Ivesian compositional technique as "Accidentalism." He talked a good deal about Ives' relationship with his father and how important that was to his development as a musician and composer . He also spoke a great deal about his wife, Harmony who supported him throughout his life and career. I also learned a fair amount about some of his insecurities which included his reaction to being called a sissy when he was a young boy because of his interest in classical music. Curry speculated that perhaps some of the dissonance and masculinity in Ives' music grows from that insecurity. This is something that many young classical musicians can probably relate to.
Curry also shared several audio excerpts for us to learn from . the most interesting was certainly a rare recording of Ives playing piano and singing a raucous politically charged Anthem that he wrote. The nearly unhinged tone of his voice and heavy-handed piano playing was incredibly telling. I enjoyed this very much.
One of the most interesting stories of the night really didn't involve Ives, but rather provided some insight into the life of a composer. Curry told a story of when he was Associate Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony and was assigned to be assistant to Aaron Copland while he was conducting the symphony for a week. Curry explained that he was afraid to speak to Copland for the entire week and never said a word to him until the last day when he found out that he had to drive him back to the hotel after rehearsal. Curry introduced himself to Copland as his assistant and asked if there was anything that he might need. Copland asked for a few minutes to simply sit and relax after the rehearsal, before the trip back to the hotel. Curry explained how physical the act of conducting is and likened it to claim an entire football game. (I could really relate to that because I am always sore after a day of conducting at an honors festival that lasts all day. I have developed a close relationship with ice bags on my shoulders in the evening!) While Curry and Copland sat for nearly 40 minutes after that rehearsal prior to going back to the hotel, Curry had the opportunity to speak with him on a very personal level. Upon getting to know him a bit , Curry allowed to Copland that he was interested in becoming a composer . Copland's response was to remind Curry that when you're conductor you are competing with all living conductors. But, when you are a composer you are competing with all living and dead composers . What an interesting thought! And, it would really give all aspiring composers pause. Just consider the folks that are programming for symphonies having the conversation, "What shall we program on this concert Beethoven or Curry "? Fortunately, William Henry Curry continued to compose and has contributed a great deal to the repertoire!
Which brings me to the final part of his talk . William Henry Curry will be premiering one of his original compositions on the same concert, entitled Autumn. He talked a bit about the piece and the title which is semi-programmatic. He explained that as a sixty-two-year-old man, he is facing his mortality on a daily basis. "Autumn" refers to his stage in life as well as a more symbolic thought about the season of autumn and the turning of leaves. He shared a good deal about his thought process and particularly some of the imagery associated with the season of autumn. He explained that when leaves turn and fall off a tree, they beautiful, yet are essentially dying. As they decompose on the ground, they provide nutrients and food for new life to thrive. These concepts are embedded in the music that he will be presenting at the upcoming concert.
I found the talk to be extraordinarily enlightening and inspiring. I've thought a great deal about many of the topics that William Henry Curry covered. I would encourage everyone to check out Quail Ridge Books and attend one of their lectures for musical performances. NC Symphony Musical Director, Grant Llewellyn will be giving a talk on The Music of World War I on April 3.