The North Carolina Symphony will premiere a new work by Resident Conductor William Henry Curry that will be heard as a full song cycle for the first time this month. Curry wrote both music and lyrics for Holiday Songs for Soprano and Orchestra. One of the songs celebrates the resurrection of New Orleans after the terrible destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which made its final landfall in St. Tammany parish almost five years ago, on Aug. 29, 2005. Vocalist Shana Blake Hill will be featured in the orchestra’s performances in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Southern Pines, New Bern and Wilmington, May 13-18.
“The powerful human need to connect with other people is the subject of the work,” says Curry. “It consists of three songs, two of which, ‘Karamu’ and ‘Mardi Gras 2006,’ are the result of a commission from the North Carolina Symphony Society.”
The first song, “Kwanzaa: Karamu” premiered in November 2009 and honors African-American culture and heritage. Karamu is one of the most festive days of Kwanzaa and is meant to celebrate the principal of Kumba (creativity). “The piece depicts a party of friends and family that has gathered together to honor the legacy of some of the greatest African-American musicians, including Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald,” Curry explains. As the party unfolds, listeners will hear a melody adapted from an African-American spiritual, a song with Afro-Cuban flavor, music inspired by a song from Ghana, an interlude of African percussion, a jazz waltz and a Hymn to Brotherhood.
The second song, “Christmas: Snow is Falling Here,” was composed in 1999 and evokes a person recalling a loved one on Christmas Eve. “The background of this work stems from my mother’s haunting observation that people who are lonely can become especially depressed at Christmastime because of the stark contrast between seasonal festivities and their own isolation,” says Curry . “The holiday atmosphere here differs from previous ones. No ethereal blanket of snow graces the surroundings. Noticeably absent are the usual sounds of merriment. Gradually, blissful memories about the beloved one bring peace and warmth to this home. The nostalgic yearning for a ‘White Christmas’ is fulfilled.”
It is the third song, “Carnival: Mardi Gras 2006,” that will have its first hearing at the May concerts. “This was the first Mardi Gras after Katrina struck in August 2005,” Curry notes. “Preceding this day, there was a great deal of discussion whether or not there should even be a celebration of this sort just six months after the disaster, but as one native New Orleanian memorably put it, ‘We need this Mardi Gras for us. We need it to help heal us.’”
Curry lived in New Orleans for six years before he came to North Carolina. “I have always felt a deep connection to the buoyant spirit of The Big Easy,” Curry says. It goes without saying what my reaction was during the last days of August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina devastated my soul-mate city. In the spring of 2009 I visited New Orleans for the first time since the disaster. I was elated by what had survived and crushed by what had not. Most sobering of all was my tour of the Ninth Ward, where I saw ruined homes that still had painted numbers on them that revealed how many bodies the rescue crews had found inside. These images moved me to write a song honoring those who made it through this cataclysm and those who did not. This work is dedicated to them.”
The piece begins at dawn on February 28, 2006, Mardi Gras day. The music begins with the much-anticipated excitement of the day, then it becomes darker as past friends and co-celebrants are recalled. Next we hear a Dixieland jazz combo parading down the street, shaking away the blues. “As the festivities reach their climax,” Curry says, “thoughts again turn to those who are gone. The blues return. A reflective moment follows that combines the main musical themes from all the songs in the cycle. The Hymn to Brotherhood from ‘Karamu’ causes the spiritual clouds to dissipate. The saints go marching into New Orleans.”
Curry is well-known as a composer, in addition to his role on the podium. Many of the world’s finest orchestras perform his works, including his tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eulogy for a Dream.
The North Carolina Symphony’s “American Classics” concert also features Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, John Williams’s The Cowboys Overture (except in Raleigh), and music from Copland’s Rodeo. In addition, the orchestra will perform Appalachian Lament, from Highland Suite, a work written by another composer with a connection to the North Carolina Symphony, its bass trombonist, Terry Mizesko.
For tickets and more information, visit the North Carolina Symphony Web site at ncsymphony.org or call 919.733.2750.
North Carolina Symphony
William Henry Curry, Resident Conductor
Shana Blake Hill, soprano
May 13, 2010, 8pm
Memorial Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill
May 14, 2010, 11:30am
Meymandi Concert Hall, Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh
May 15, 2010, 8pm
Lee Auditorium, Pinecrest High School, Southern Pines
May 16, 2020, 7:30pm
New Bern Riverfront Convention Center, New Bern
May 18, 2010, 8pm
Kenan Auditorium, UNC-Wilmington, Wilmington