William Henry Curry is a gifted conductor; his brother Ralph is a gifted cellist who has been in the Cleveland Orchestra for 35 years. It may seem unlikely that two African American brothers from a lower middle class family in Pittsburgh would become professional musicians but go back a couple of generations and the picture becomes clear. Their maternal grandfather helped organize an opera company and performed the baritone in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Coincidently, many years later, it would become the first opera that Curry ever saw. The Curry boys also inherited musical talent from their father’s side of the family. Their paternal grandmother won a scholarship to become an organ major at the prestigious New England Conservatory in 1915.
Still, as a result of financial challenges, the boys did not get involved with music until a school program provided them with free lessons and instruments. Curry and his brother both inhaled the music. For Curry, it was a deeply spiritual experience. At age 15, his instructor who was also a conductor, allowed Curry to conduct his local orchestra. When Curry asked him for lessons in conducting, the instructor refused and told him that,"You are either born a conductor or you are not." Curry said, “I remembered that after my first rehearsal as a conductor, I couldn’t get the smile off of my face. I was so happy."
Eventually Curry became a conducting major at the Oberlin Conservatory. His conducting studies were with the late Robert Baustain. At age 21, he was asked to audition for the Assistant Conductor position with the Richmond Chamber Orchestra and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. Based on his professor’s advice, Curry left school to take the position in the fall of 1975. When he arrived he was told that he would not be given the title of Assistant Conductor. The Board of Directors claimed it was because his predecessor who had also been an Oberlin student hadn’t worked out. Curry said, “I’d moved all my stuff. I’d given up my college dream of two degrees and they’re saying they’re not going to give me a title? Well, who the hell am I?” Curry later found out that when the Board of Directors discovered that an African American had been hired, they were furious and their response was “He doesn’t exist to us.”
At the end of Curry's first season, the grand finale was to be a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The night before the concert, the Music Director who was scheduled to conduct fell ill. At 8am the next morning Curry was told that he would have to conduct that evening's performance without a rehearsal. Curry said, “I’d never conducted that orchestra. And here I am conducting the most difficult, the greatest symphony ever written on 12 hours notice.”
Curry later discovered that the Board of Directors had first tried to get the Conductor from the Washington, DC orchestra to replace the Music Director. After he refused, they were forced to turn to Curry. Curry was told that since they had to introduce him to the media, they would give him the title of Assistant Conductor. Curry reflected, “It was a great performance. A standing ovation. The reviews were like my mom wrote them from heaven. And that’s how my career got its jump start. . . . Then all of a sudden these interviews were coming for me to audition (and I was able) to get the heck out of the capital of the confederacy."
Curry’s career is filled with stories like these. As his career rose higher and higher, Curry eventually discovered the "glass ceiling". In 1980, Curry's mentor, Loren Maazel arranged an interview for Curry with one of the leading concert managers of New York. The manager listened politely to Curry for a few minutes and then said to him, "I can't do anything with a black conductor." Curry’s career is filled with stories like these. He said, “So along with the lovely resume there have been doors slammed in my face. . . I am talking about situations where I know I was rejected because of my race. It wasn't paranoia on my part, rather, these are situations where people in positions of power told me to my face. 'We didn't give you the job because of the fact that you are black'" .
There are a lot of sacrifices that I have made. Go to the North Carolina Symphony. Look in the orchestra. Are there any black people there besides me? The answer is no. Look in the audience are there any black people besides me? Two? I am estranged from my people by having chosen this career. . . . . So if you go into this as a black person be prepared to be by yourself in a sense.
Now the good news is as far as the orchestra, they are always cool. It’s just like (when) we broke into athletics. Because at first there was resistance but hell if you can knock that ball out of the park, you’re my guy. You prove yourself. Same with orchestra playing.”
Regardless of the obstacles he’s faced, Curry has had an amazing career. He has conducted virtually every major orchestra in America. He was nominated for a Grammy and is the only person who has ever been the unanimous winner of the Leopold Stokowski Conducting Competition at Carnegie Hall. When asked about his gift, he said, “There is no one that could love music more than me. No one could respect music more than me. And when I conduct, that love and respect is infectious. And it moves the musicians and they are inspired by it. . .”
Today Curry divides his time among composing, conducting the Durham Symphony and NC Symphony as well as teaching at William Peace University. He hopes to one day write a musical. Curry is creating a legacy that will continue to live in the music that he composes, the musicians that he mentors and the students he develops. And there will be those who are moved by his musical performances as well as the image of an African American man sharing his joy with the world while he leads an orchestra.