One of the glorious treasures of Elon University is its beautifully restored Whitley Auditorium, an intimate jewel box and an ideal venue for recitals and chamber music. The stage is dominated by its magnificent Casavant Opus 3784 (2001) organ. This is the 125th anniversary of the university and to honor it, a challenging work for organ and string quartet was commissioned from Todd Coleman, an Associate Professor of Music at Elon. The world premiere performers were Timothy Olsen, Kenan Professor of Organ at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and an Associate Professor of Organ at Salem College and Duke University‘s renowned Ciompi Quartet. An attractive program of solo organ selections and ensemble pieces preceded the premiere, making a worthy opener for the Mary Duke Biddle Chamber Series.

Two solo organ selections displayed the stylistic scope of the organ and the mettle of Timothy Olsen. Variations de Concert, Op. 1, by French organist and composer Joseph Bonnet (1884-1944), opened the program with a flourish! Its full-throttle ff opening was followed by a richly-varied tour of the organ’s registrations: piping flutes, colorful reeds, and thundering pedal-work, to name but a few. This Romantic period work was followed by six Variations on “Mein junges Leben hat ein End” by the late Renaissance and early Baroque Dutch composer and organist, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck  (1562-1621). This had a ruminative opening. Hearing how expertly Olsen conjured up the sound-world of the seventeenth century with his careful choices of registrations was wonderful.

The organ can pack a lot of power and more than hold its own against a full orchestra, much less a string quartet. One of the most popular works by Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) provided a taste of the possibilities to come. The Organ Concerto (No. 13) in F, “Cuckoo and the Nightingale,” HWV 295, is in four movements, Larghetto, Allegro, Larghetto, and Allegro. The nickname comes from the imitation of birdsongs, in the organ’s upper registers, in the second movement. It was completed April 2, 1739, and Handel played it two days later between movements of his oratorio Israel in Egypt. Olsen was joined by the Ciompi Quartet. Olsen’s choices of dynamics and registrations here combined well with the strings, making for a well-balanced performance. Handel often features strings and organ separately, so there was considerable contrast as well.

Members of the Ciompi Quartet got to shine in turn in the String Quartet in G, Op. 76, No. 1, by Franz Joseph Haydn (1752-1809) and when playing together the ensemble was tightly-knit. This is one of the composer’s happiest works, bubbling over with good spirits and having a typical musical joke in the last movement’s long stint in G minor, before its cheerful ending. This was a typically fresh and witty performance by the players with fine solos in turn, Eric Pritchard’s soaring violin and Fred Raimi’s rich cello tone coming immediately to mind. And there was the give-and-take between second violinist Hsiao-Mei Ku and violist Jonathan Bagg as well.

The Prelude, Fugue and Variation in B Minor, Op. 18, by César Franck (1822-90), gave Olsen an opportunity to explore a Romantic work full of modulations, contrapuntal complexity, and rich harmonic language. Olsen’s performance was very satisfying. One of the pleasures of an organ recital in Whitley is the fact the entire organ console is wheeled out on stage so the organist’s fast coursing over multiple keyboards and solos on the pedals can be seen by all. This adds considerably to the musical experience.

Before the concert began, composer Todd Coleman gave some background information about the commissioning and about his work, Numen Lumen, for organ and string quartet. He worked on the piece, off and on, between Christmas 2012 and late May 2013. He was told by Mary Alice Bragg to give full scope to his imagination, knowing the skills of the work’s intended performers. She also helped him explore the possibilities of this organ’s registers. The title comes from Elon’s motto, “Numen Lumen,” which can be very roughly translated as “spiritual light,” “intellectual light,” or a “nod toward the light.” The Latin word “numen” does not readily translate into English. It suggests something internal or spiritual such as the spirit of a place.

Numen Lumen for Organ and String Quartet (2013) is in three movements. The first, Introduction, Scherzo, ends loudly. It opens with the cello and viola alone soon joined by the organ. It is a fascinating exploration of high string harmonics, pizzicatos, and striking combinations of organ registers with strings. Coleman’s choice of registers helped ensure excellent balance between the quartet and organ throughout. The most immediately attractive movement is the ethereal second, marked “Angelic, Pure.” The finale, Con vigore, is aptly named. Organist Timothy Olsen and the Ciompi Quartet had clearly rehearsed the work thoroughly, and their performance was breathtaking. It is seldom that commissions are clearly pieces that ought to be played often, well beyond their duty to fulfill a grant. Numen Lumen is a winner!