Conductor Thomas R. Erdmann chose an ambitious program for the April 25 concert of the Elon University Chamber Orchestra and Camerata, given in McCrary Theatre. The formal program began and ended with works by Henry Purcell (1659-95). The Symphony No. 21 of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) provided the maximum of contrast. A typo in the otherwise fine program notes repeated Purcell’s dates for Hovhaness. Stephen A. Futrell had prepared the Elon University Camerata, a 21-member chamber choir, very well.

The short and sweet Overture from Purcell’s ode “Who Can From Joy Refrain” provided a good warm up. Guest soloist Paul Neebe, currently Principal Trumpet of both the Charlottesville and Roanoke Symphonies in Virginia, proved to be a sensitive and skilled artist in this piece and the Hovhaness. His bright tone glowed in the stately opening, supported by unison string sections. Graduations in color and dynamics were displayed in the faster sections accompanied by more intricate divided strings. The string sections usually played well together, although intonation and ensemble tone soured briefly from time to time.

Many composers – Mahler, for example – were haunted by the specter of mortality conjured up by Beethoven’s formidable nine symphonies. Hohvaness, composer of over 30 symphonies, clearly was not to be numbered among the faint of heart! Scholars divide the creative periods of the Titan of Bonn into three, but Arnold Rosner, in Grove Music Online, divides Hohvaness’ into no less than five. The composer seems to have anticipated many “modern” movements, sometimes by decades. His use of archaic forms and melding of Eastern and Western musical idioms occurred before the term “world music” was minted. Fifteen years before the European aleatoric avant garde era, the composer began using the element of chance or sound sequences played at random. His study of Armenian music, especially works by the priest-composer Komitas Varapet, was central to the development of his style, along with his meditative activities. Almost every one of his works is religious in nature. In this he anticipated Spiritual Minimalists and “New Age-ists” such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.

Hovhaness’ Symphony Ectchmiadzin (Symphony No. 21), Op. 234 (1970), according to the notes to the composer’s recording (Crystal Records CD-804 OUP), was written for two trumpets, timpani, percussion, and strings. It is a late work from the composer’s Fourth Period, in which many East Asian musical sources predominate. Named for the religious capital of the Armenian Church, it honors His Holiness Vasken I, Catholicos of all Armenians. The slow first movement, ceremonial, features a shifting pattern of shimmering strings supporting the sensual trumpet’s long-breathed melody. The second movement, a stately dance (Pavana), is most attractive with extensive and varied pizzicato strings punctuated with widely spaced timpani notes. Neebe’s seamless and flowing trumpet melody was joined briefly by Susan Abernathy’s viola solo. Chimes and quiet gong notes added to the interest of the more complex third movement, which evokes the heroism of the priests of Etchmaiadzin. In wartime, they had refused to abandon the church, remaining to ring the bells loudly, thus heartening the Armenian army to defeat the invaders. Only one trumpet was used for the Elon performance.

The soloists and the Camerata sang their parts clearly in a well-prepared concert performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689). Mezzo-soprano Hallie Hogan brought out all of the pathos of Dido’s situation. Triangle music lovers are familiar with the lyric soprano Polly Cornelius, who sang the Queen’s confidant, Belinda. Kenneth Lee’s firm baritone brought out the authority and the conflicted heart of Aeneas. It was a joy to hear the role of the Sorceress sung straight by soprano Jessica Van Ord; there have been too many arch performances of that part. I have heard more ringing dispatches of the Sailor’s “Come away, Fellow sailors” – a full operatic outing by Stafford Wing in the ’80s comes to mind – but Futrell’s performance was good. Very few allowances needed to be made for minor character parts taken by members of the Camerata: soprano Morgan Davis was the First Witch, Firstin LoBiondo was the Second Witch, Christen Byrne was the Spirit, and Ashley D’Ambra was the Second Woman. The extensive continuo part was successfully played by harpsichordist Mary Alice Bragg and cellist Catherine VandeGeijn.

Note: When this review was written, some copies of Crystal CD 804 remained available at [inactive 5/07]. Hovhaness conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in timeless performances of the Symphony No. 21, Armenian Rhapsody No. 3, and my favorite work by the composer, Fra Angelico, with its spine-tingling aleatoric episodes.