The Eastern Music Festival, celebrating 50 years this summer (1961-2011), presented a well-chosen survey of exclusively American music at the Dana Auditorium of Guilford College with its orchestra composed of college-age students attending the Festival. Maestro Gerard Schwarz directed the first half, and José-Luis Novo the second. The evening began with a work by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Avanti!, a piece so new it is not even listed among the composer’s works on her website – it was commissioned for Maestro Schwarz’s swan song at the Seattle Symphony and had its world premiere there in January of this year. Although only two minutes long, it is not a frothy pastry but rather something that might be the opening of a larger, serious work – beginning with dynamic unisons and propulsive offbeats, followed by some jazzy incursions from the trumpets in combined minor and major thirds (presumably representing Schwarz himself, who had a major trumpet career before turning to conducting). In other words, one might hear this as a “film cue” for a biopic for Schwarz, as he moves on to different challenges. 

The piece which followed, the Symphony No. 2 (“Mysterious Mountain”) by Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), is perhaps the most well-known work by this prolific composer of Armenian descent, one so original in its idiom that it would be hard to date just by its style.(It was composed and premiered in 1955, with Stokowski conducting.) Hovhaness was born and raised in the Boston area and studied at the New England Conservatory, which might explain the presence of elements of early music (in addition to Armenian themes) in his work. What the piece most resembles to these ears is the freely modulating yet ultra-consonant sound of the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. It is more musically than technically demanding and so a good choice for a young orchestra – the only thing one might have missed was a larger body of strings for the massed chords at the opening. There was expressive playing from the oboe soloist.

The second half included three works by two of Hovhaness’ gay contemporaries, Samuel Barber (1910-81) and Aaron Copland (1900-90). Barber’s Essay, Op. 17, is a wonderful piece that deserves to be better known, a highly serious work, full of craft and yet accessible to most listeners, with a narrative which carries the ear along. It was beautifully played, with standout work from the unison horns in their theme, a compelling solo from the flute at the opening, and fine fortissimo playing from the strings to close. This is a rousing, romantic, and moving work.

Copland’s works were slighter – a brief set of variations in a cinematic vein on the familiar folk-song “John Henry,” with the clang of the great man’s hammer, and some choo-choo music for the railroad in the strings. Entertaining fluff, but not much more.

The evening ended with his famous “Danzon Cubano,” originally for two pianos; perhaps due to a lack of time to rehearse the complicated rhythms (certainly the most difficult on the program), the result came off sounding far from Cuban, a pity in a time when even in North Carolina we can hear authentic Cuban sounds. There was no swing and it was too square – more like Nebraska than the Caribbean.

The EMF continues through July 30. For details, see our calendar or the presenter’s website.