The Duke Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Harry Davidson and with Don Eagle, trumpet, and student concerto competition winner Jila Dabestan, piano, performed in Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University East Campus. It seems fashionable these days to entitle symphony concerts, sometimes suggesting an historical connection among the works at hand, or a programmatic link, or simply an attempt at light-hearted whimsy. This program was titled “Add Hovhaness and MacDowell to the LISZT.” Now I am curious about what you get with that. There is nothing said about Beethoven (who is on the program) or about Khatchaturian – “Gesundheit!” (who is not). Nevertheless, the Liszt was fine.

But that comes later; the program opened with two selections by American composer Alan Hovhanses (1911-2000). Hovhaness was born in Summerville, Massachusetts, where his father, of Armenian descent, was a chemistry professor at Tufts College. His mother was of Scottish descent and a graduate of Wellesley College. Hovhaness pursued a musical career despite conflict about the financial practicality from his parents. He was a prolific composer whose music is strongly influenced by his Armenian heritage, the mystical traditional music of India, and other national and stylistic elements, including, from his mother, Scottish influences. The first selection played by the orchestra was his Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Op. 128.

This is not the place for a treatise on The Art of the Fugue; suffice it to say that a fugue is a theme repeated along with the continuation and development of that theme – similar to a canon or a round, and a quadruple fugue is the weaving together of four different themes, each beginning at established intervals of time and pitch and interwoven in a fascinating tapestry of sound. After the strings and woodwinds opened the piece, the first theme was clearly heard in the first violins, then the second violins, followed by the viola section and finally the cellos. The second theme followed the same route. The entrance of the third and fourth themes and their development were harder to follow but threads could be picked up here and there. It was a fascinating listen, projecting Hovhaness’ predictable mysticism along with the complex musical technology. The orchestra played with confidence and with feeling and Davidson maintained admirable control throughout.

Next we heard one of Hovhaness’ most popular and frequently performed pieces, one often heard in worship settings with organ or piano accompaniment rather than string orchestra for which it was written. The “Prayer of St. Gregory” for trumpet and string orchestra, Op. 62b, is taken from his 1946 opera Etchmiadzin, where it served as an intermezzo. It begins with a short homophonic melody, richly and mystically harmonized. The solo trumpet, performed by the accomplished and well-known Don Eagle, arises gently out of the string lushness with a melody comprised of the notes of the chords of the opening passage. The overall effect is calming and imbued with reverent reassurance. Again the orchestra, with the guidance of Davidson, realized the intent of the composer with gentle dynamics and precise playing in perfect partnership with the soloist. Eagle performed from the corner of the balcony which added to the otherworldliness of this lovely piece. His skill and musical sensitivity provided for a unique and memorable listening experience.

Wrapping up the first half of the concert was music by one of the first American-born composers to gain world-wide recognition: Edward MacDowell (1861-1908). He was born in New York City and began his musical studies with family friends. Later he studied at the Paris Conservatory and in Frankfurt. He is best known for his “To a Wild Rose” from his 1896 piano collection Woodland Sketches, Op. 51. His music is centered in the late romantic style and has the unmistakable influence of Tchaikovsky plus a hint of Wagner. The Suite No. 1, Op. 42, was composed and revised over the years from 1888-91. In this program we heard three movements. The first, “In a Haunted Forest,” is appropriately mysterious with a touch of ominous atmosphere. Movement IV, “The Shepherdess’ Song,” is pastoral and romantically reflective. The final movement, “Forest Spirits,” begins in a playful, perhaps even mischievous mood before changing to a mystical and somewhat eerie middle section and then back to the playful. This was the first time I have heard this work in over fifty years of concert-going and I am very pleased to have heard this piece of Americana well and charmingly performed.

After intermission we had the delightful pleasure of hearing the winner of the 2010-11 Student Concerto Competition, Jila Dabestani, in a performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. The soloist was charming and poised at the piano, dressed in a glowing magenta gown. From her piano entrance it was clear this is a talent to be reckoned with. Beethoven provides a rather long introduction to this concerto in which he slowly reveals a charming, almost pastoral melody. The pianist enters with a flourish of notes and a clear statement of the main melody. Together, soloist and orchestra develop the melody until a secondary theme, just as playful and pastoral as the first, emerges. My image of this music is of a young Alpine shepherdess playing in the meadow, seductive and charming, yet confident and sure of herself. Then when the cadenza arrives she takes us on a challenging, rollicking adventure full of wisdom and strength of character. The orchestra rejoins her for a triumphant celebration of life. The performance was captivating, elegant and winsome from both Dabestani and the extraordinary Duke Symphony Orchestra.

Many years ago when I first was captivated by classical music, one of my early favorites was Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem “Les Préludes.” Back then it was heroic music that stirred my adventurous teenage imagination. Hearing it again to conclude this concert reminded me of my early attachment but it was heard this time through more knowing ears. I know now of the overwhelming generosity of Liszt, how he helped students with free lessons and encouraged them and great composers, too – composers such as Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Borodin and in no small part his own son-in-law, Wagner, giving them his time, influence and means. I know now of his remarkable skill as a pianist and of his imaginative and creative canon of compositions in every form and style. I know of his experimentation with chromaticism and previously-unheard harmonies. I know of how horrendously he suffered in his final days in Bayreuth while his daughter, Cosima and Wagner were totally wrapped up in preparing for the premiere of The Ring at the first Bayreuth Festival. And I thought of the words inscribed on the published score of “Les Préludes” – “What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?” Hearing “Les Préludes” again performed with such enthusiasm and honesty made it feel like a personal reconnection with an old friend. It was an outstanding musical experience.

Currently these concerts are provided to the public free of charge. Your attendance not only provides you with outstanding musical pleasure but also supports and encourages these talented and dedicated students’ musical futures.