by Jonathan Scott | Photography by Diana Matthews
Last summer, Maestro William Henry Curry retired from an extraordinary 20-year tenure as artistic director of the North Carolina Symphony. He will be remembered for his remarkable ability to communicate with audiences of all ages, having led more educational concerts than any conductor in the symphony’s history. We caught up with Maestro Curry at William Peace University, where he teaches music appreciation. It only takes a minute listening to him talk with his students to see how much he defies the stereotype of the lofty, reserved and unapproachable symphony conductor.
ONC: Maestro, I understand that you began composing and conducting at the age of 14. What sort of upbringing led you to be so accomplished so young?
WHC: I came from an all-black, lower middle-class community. I was born in 1954, the year of Brown vs. Board of Education. I think every black mother then was thinking that maybe her children would be able to go further than she did. So my mother was quite determined that her boys were going to excel. It was my mother who introduced me to classical music and jazz.
I became interested in music when I was about 5 or 6. Whenever I went to my parents’ friends houses, there would be pianos. I begged my parents for one, and it must have broken their hearts, because we simply didn’t have money for a piano or even lessons. We didn’t even have a phonograph, only a small radio.
When I was in the sixth grade, finally, someone in my all-black grade school said, “These kids are underserved. We got to get some music in here.” So a gentleman named Eugene Reichenfeld came to school with musical instruments and the zeal of Johnny Appleseed. He was my musical savior. He became, after my mother, the second most important person in my life.
He was a conductor. That’s how lucky I was. One day, when I was about 14, he said, “Bill, I think you would make a good conductor.” I was astonished because I hadn’t told anyone, not even my parents, that was what I wanted to do. He said, “I’m going to have you conduct my orchestra next Thursday.” I told him that was great, only I didn’t know how to conduct.
He said, “Conductors are born and not made.” It took me 30 years to understand how true that is. You can be a musical genius and not be able to conduct with any ability and panache. It’s a complete mystery.
When I went home and told my dad, he said, “Boy, you can’t conduct.” But he told me the way his grandfather taught him how to swim was to throw him in the YMCA pool. So that’s what happened to me. I conducted for about an hour. I must have been terrible, but at the end of the rehearsal you couldn’t get the smile off my face.
What was that first piece was you conducted?
Reichenfeld was very brilliant. You don’t hand a young conductor a piece to do. You let him choose. In order to get over his self-consciousness, he has to love the music. That’s the essence of conducting. So he asked me, “What would you like to conduct?”
Well, one evening when I was 14, playing viola in a youth symphony, I had an “out-of-body” experience while playing Wagner’s “Overture to Die Meistersingers.” So he let me conduct that piece. Afterwards he said, “Great, and in the spring, we’ll have you conduct a concert.” Now, it seems like he must have been a madman to have a 14-year-old kid conduct an adult orchestra in front of a paying audience. But he knew what he was doing.
At 21, you were appointed assistant conductor of the Richmond Chamber Orchestra. How did you attain such a prestigious position at that age?
When I was 19, while I was attending the Oberlin Conservatory, I went backstage to meet one of the great conductors of the world, Lorin Maazel. I don’t remember what I said, but I must have impressed him, because the next day he found my conducting teacher’s phone number and said, “What about this kid, Bill Curry?” My instructor must have said some kind things since Maazel told him he’d like me to audition for assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
It was the most rigorous interview I ever had. I had to play the piano. I had to play my own instrument. I had to show them an original composition. He would open up a score, one of a hundred, and say “What piece is this?” He played a 10-note dissonant chord and said, “I’m going to change one note and play it again. Sing the note that’s different.”
I didn’t do so well at that. Thank God I didn’t get that job because in a professional orchestra, they’re good at killing a conductor when he’s not ready. They can be very cruel. They say, “Don’t put a guinea pig in front of me as a leader.” You have to learn somewhere, but you shouldn’t be leading the Cleveland Orchestra at 19.
But anyway he let me conduct the orchestra the next day, and the brother of the executive director of the Richmond Symphony happened to be in the audience. When they had an opening there for an assistant conductor, he passed my name along to his sister. I was in my senior year at Oberlin when they invited me to come for an interview.
The rest of the story is kind of interesting, kind of funny, and also kind of sad.
They gave me the job. When I got to Virginia, they said, “Oh, by the way, we’re not giving you the title of assistant conductor. Your predecessor was also from Oberlin, and he didn’t work out so well.” It wasn’t until the year after I left that I learned the real story. It was 1975, Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the old Confederacy, and when the board of directors found they had hired a black conductor, they said, “No way.”
So I decided to stay and make the best of it. Well, God helps fools for music. At the end of the year, we were performing Beethoven’s Ninth. I was sitting in the orchestra in dress rehearsal and noticed that the conductor didn’t look so healthy. I thought, “If he’s indisposed, who’s going to conduct the concert? Could they possibly ask me? Well, they won’t ask me because I’m not really here with a title.”
The conductor got sick with kidney stones. So who was going to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, the most difficult symphony ever written, that very night?
They weren’t going to let me conduct. They called Antal Doráti, the conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, DC. They woke him up at 3 a.m., saying, “Maestro, we’re in trouble. We’re performing Beethoven’s Ninth tonight without a conductor. Please help us out.”
He said, “Do you have an assistant conductor?” And they said, “Well, sort of.” And he said, “Then let him conduct.” And he hung up on them.
They had no choice but to let the me do it. I remember being backstage before the performance and one of the percussionists said, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes for anything in the world.” How’s that for a confidence boost? So I conducted, and the reviews were like my mother wrote them from heaven.
What brought you to the N.C. Symphony?
Later in my career, I won the Stokowski Award, had a Carnegie Hall debut and was nominated for a Grammy for my first recording. I conducted the New Orleans Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony and guest conducted around the world. When the job opened up here in North Carolina, I had been already guest conducting the orchestra. It was one of those love at first sight things that happens sometimes in real life and happens rarely in the orchestra world.
It was like a 20-year honeymoon. Blissful.
What are your plans now that you’ve retired?
When I knew I was going to retire, I wanted to stay busy. I still guest conduct and am the musical director of the Durham Symphony. I’m starting an adult music education program as an adjunct professor at Duke in the spring. But I still wanted to do something different in music. That’s something that Aaron Copeland told me. “Make sure you keep adding on musical disciplines.” I’ve taught all my life in a sense—men and women whom I’ve mentored.
I’m well known for speaking to the audience, but I’d never done it formally in front of a classroom. So I thought I’d try teaching. When Peace University heard about this, they asked me to teach music appreciation.
I know you’re also well known for being able to connect with young people. What role do you think classical music has for kids these days?
We’ve known for a quarter of a century now that the budgets have been cut out of the schools for music. It’s considered an expendable luxury. But there are still kids who are interested in playing a musical instrument. The kids in the upper middle class can still play their violins, but what about the Bill Currys of the world? What happens to them?
That’s why I’m proud to be part of Kids Notes, which is a group in Durham, based on a program that came from Venezuela. It helps to get the underserved kids instruments. You have to prove that the parents have less than a certain income, but they’ll give kids free instruments and lessons. It’s a very intense program.
It’s very serious. The parents have to be part of it. But it’s thriving. They now have 100 kids in Durham. These kids are mainly minority kids, and you have to wonder where does the desire to play violin come from in these 7-year-old Latino or black kids when it’s not on TV? It’s nowhere. It’s not on the radio. It doesn’t come from their parents. It doesn’t come from their peers. It’s almost innate. Almost like destiny.
You don’t fit the stereotype of the aloof, arrogant orchestra conductor. Why is that?
When I was in Pittsburgh, the musical director was William Steinberg, and he allowed me to attend his rehearsals. He was one of those lofty, unapproachable European maestros. But on the last day I went up to him and said, “Maestro Steinberg, I wondered if you had a few minutes to talk to me about that Beethoven symphony.” He said, “I let you attend my rehearsals and that’s enough.” And he walked away.
I was crushed. He taught me what not to do. So that was a blessing. Because I would never do that to anyone.
So if you ask me what I’m most proud of, it’s that these young people know intuitively that I’m approachable. And they do come up to me, and they know I’m a good listener, and that I’m not judgmental and somehow they sense that. If I’m proud of anything, it’s that.
What music do you listen to for enjoyment?
Wagner, of course. He’s my favorite composer. And Louis Armstrong. I’m now reading the biography “Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life” by Lawrence Bergreen. Armstrong grew up in the red light district of New Orleans. What kept this kid, who stole food from garbage cans, whose mother was a prostitute, from becoming a criminal? It was because he loved that trumpet. He was disciplined, and he loved music. It just took him away. He became the No. 1 music genius this country has produced. He was the most influential since he created jazz. He became a musical ambassador around the world. I’m interested in people who came from nothing.