When you pay tribute to the songs Nat King Cole made a permanent part of the American musical canon like "Nature Boy" and "Too Young," you have to remember what makes them so good. For William Henry Curry, resident conductor of the North Carolina Symphony, the qualities that make a simple tune part of "that golden era of American song" come from a careful creative process.
"The great thing about the standards is that these songs were created by people that were specialized. So a great lyricist wrote the words, a great orchestrator orchestrated it, and a great performer performed it," he says. It's why artists constantly reinvent and reinterpret songs like "Summertime."
The Symphony's latest program will pay tribute to Cole and gospel/Broadway performer Paul Robeson. In the process, it intends to trace the birth of African-American music—from Scott Joplin's rags to Curry's own composition, a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. entitled Eulogy for a Dream. Crossover classical and pop artist Jubilant Sykes will take on the Cole and Robeson tunes. By starting with Joplin, working through Robeson's role in the Harlem Renaissance, and re-contextualizing material from a symphony overture by William Grant Still to jazz classics from Duke Ellington, Curry says he hopes to celebrate African-American culture and honor Martin Luther King Jr. on the weekend designated to do just that.
"Martin Luther King has always fascinated me and impressed me, to say the least," Curry says. But Curry warns that, although there's a fair share of history packed into this week's Pops program, it's not meant as a history lesson. "I was very careful to do this theme because I didn't want it to have a didactic quality. It's a celebration, not a lecture."
The N.C. Symphony performs A Tribute to Nat King Cole and Paul Robeson with baritone Jubilant Sykes at Meymandi Concert Hall. Showtime is 8 p.m. Friday, Jan 18, and Saturday, Jan. 19. Showtime is 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19. Tickets are $30-$57.