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CLASSICAL  March 2005

CLASSICAL March 2005

Subject:

Hovhaness and the Harp

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 7 Mar 2005 09:59:51 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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      Alan Hovhaness
        Harp Music

*  Sonata for Harp & Guitar, "Spirit of Trees"
*  Concerto for Harp & String Orchestra
*  Upon Enchanted Ground*
*  Sonata for Harp
*  Suite for Flute & Harp, "The Garden of Adonis"

Yolanda Kondonassis (harp), David Leisner (guitar), *Frank Hendrickx
(flute), *Herwig Coryn (cello), *Patrick De Smet (tam-tam), Eugenia
Zuckerman (flute), I Fiamminghi/Rudolf Werthen Telarc CD-80530 Total time:
73:01

Summary for the Busy Executive: A fine line between enchanted and
stupified.

I know of only two harpists who achieved anything near star status:
the Spanish Nicanor Zabaleta and the Welsh Ossian Ellis.  Other fine
harpists seem the darlings of specialists or the harp-obsessed: Lily
Laskine, Alice Chalifoux, Susan McDonald, Marie-Claire Jamet, and so on.
Yolanda Kondonassis may well become the third star.  A pupil of Chalifoux
(the Dorothy De Lay of the harp and Szell's principal in Cleveland), she
combines superb musicianship with a flair for marketing.  She has managed
to cross over to New Agers - a group I thought would have died out years
ago for want of brain nourishment - while keeping a base among classical
fans, a bit like James Galway and Yo-Yo Ma in that regard.

Hovhaness, more than most, is one of those composers you kind of must
be "with." He wrote at least 60 symphonies - more than Miakovsky and
Brian, and probably more than those two combined.  A friend of mine once
complained, "Yeah, but only one in five is any good," which means that
Hovhaness wrote at least twelve good symphonies.  Furthermore, Hovhaness
has an immediately-identifiable voice and point of view.  Given his
facility, it may surprise people to learn that it took him a while to
find his style.  Indeed, at one point early on, he was known as "the
American Sibelius." He destroyed all this work.  Hovhaness's musical
language is perhaps his greatest invention.  Before him, no music sounded
like this, not even the music of the composer's ethnic homeland, Armenia,
which his work often celebrates.  It was a conscious construction, an
amalgam of Middle Eastern melismata and rhythms, Renaissance modality,
and, oddly enough, Baroque counterpoint.  The quality of Hovhaness's
output varies, to put it mildly, and this, combined with a "mystical"
sensibility close to Madame Blavatsky's, has given some license to sneer.
I've never really understood the need to judge an artist at his worst,
or, as an old professor of mine put it, "Every composer has his Dreckhauf,
even Bach." At his best, Hovhaness possesses a gift for writing quirky
yet gorgeous tunes, lush and unpredictable harmonies, and fascinating
counterpoint.  Nevertheless, Hovhaness sometimes seems to compose on
"automatic," as if the music encountered no intellectual hitch between
synapse and pencil point.  Such music doesn't come from cynicism: Hovhaness
is sincere, at times painfully so, as if the magnificence of his visions
guaranteed the magnificence of his art.

The up-and-down quality shows up in the program on the CD.  I could
really have done without "The Garden of Adonis," for example.  To me,
it goes on and on, like a politician's drone, and neither Kondonassis
nor Zuckerman lifts it out of its rut.  I should say at this point that
although people tend to agree not all Hovhaness comes from the top drawer,
they often disagree on which pieces to consign to art hell.  So I don't
discount the possibility that this work may appeal to somebody other
than me.

Upon Enchanted Ground, on the other hand, shows the considerable
aesthetic risks Hovhaness runs and how he often brings them off.  It's
a slow, almost somnambulant piece.  There's no discernable inexorable
forward impulse to be had.  It doesn't develop, as much as it simply
unfolds.  And yet it takes a listener along, quietly and firmly.  Why
this piece doesn't just dissolve into suet, I have no idea.  By all
rights, it should.  Instead, it fascinates.  Hovhaness patently knows
exactly when to stop and to move on to the next absorbing surprise.  The
quartet instrumentation runs to the unusual: flute, cello, harp, and
tam-tam (a large gong).  The tam-tam piqued my curiosity this time around.
I don't think there are a dozen strokes for the instrument in the entire
score, and all of them rise from and never beyond a soft dynamic.  But
they give the piece an incredible depth, like the iceberg's bulk beneath
the ocean surface or a seismic rumble.

In contrast, the "Spirit of Trees" sonata for harp and guitar goes along
pleasantly enough.  Its main interest for me lies in the ambiguity of
harp and guitar sonority.  I'm uncertain at times which instrument is
sounding.  It makes its smooth, serene way, but without that extra deep
echo - sonically and psychically - we get in Upon Enchanted Ground.

However, I count the sonata and the concerto as the two big works on the
program.  Hovhaness habitually writes music his own way, and this includes
his writing for harp, a very difficult instrument for a modern composer
who doesn't play the thing.  Essentially, the harp hasn't changed its
essential character in thousands of years.  It is still mainly a modal
or diatonic instrument.  Its "home" key is C-flat (Note: not B-major).
The nineteenth century added some mechanics to the beast to allow it
some ability to play sharps and flats and to modulate, but it's still
not a chromatic instrument, and since the twentieth century, music sings
mainly chromatically.  You can't do a quick chromatic scale on the harp.
You can't create a chord for it with three pitches each a half-step (or
a major seventh or minor ninth, for that matter) apart.  Hovhaness's
finds a radical solution - literally "radical," since it goes back to
the roots of the instrument.  He makes the harp sing modally (mainly
Dorian and Phrygian, for those keeping score), although he continually
changes the modes.  He confines chromatics mainly to slow, even turtle-slow
passages.  The emotional affect of the piece is odd, a piece "out of all
time." It's modern and ancient at once.  You can imagine it coming from
under the hill.

The concerto, in contrast, lies smack up close to our usual sonic picture
of Hovhaness.  The opening movement, for example, begins with a cello
solo cutting the same groove as the start of the composer's Prelude and
Quadruple Fugue.  The oddness consists in the lack of "star power" music
for the nominal soloist.  In the opening movement, solo cello and bass
and massed strings have as much or more to say than the harp.  All the
movements save the third are slow.  The harp mainly adds color or winds
around and decorates the main ideas in the other instruments.  However,
the third movement (at under a minute, the shortest by far) reverses
things, with the harp taking the lead.  As in the sonata, it sings in
modes, rather than in harmonies.  In the fourth movement, subtitled "Dawn
in Paradise," the concerto's usual balance returns, the harp now secondary.
The true heart of the concerto beats here.  Like Upon Enchanted Ground,
the music doesn't develop, in the typical Western way.  The piece builds
to a climax, falls back, and then repeats the build.  It's the aural
equivalent of meditation, with enlightenment appearing intensely but
briefly.  The finale, a combination of Hovhaness hymn (the strings) and
aria (the harp), gives us for the first time in the concerto the "normal"
balance of solo and concertante, but as an ending it lies as far from
the usual barn burning as one can get.  Still, through very simple means,
it focuses our attention on the soloist, thus fulfilling a concerto's
basic function.  I've tried to give you a description without "attitude,"
as it were, and consequently you may think I don't care much for the
piece.  You'd be wrong.  This is a gorgeous, moving work, all the more
so because its rhetorical strategies are so fundamental, so simple.  It
reminds me a bit of reading Homer, where the poetry moves quickly and
naturally and yet dazzles at the same time.

Superb performances and engineering all around.  Even when I don't care
for a particular piece, I can't fault the players, who raise everything
to a very high level indeed.  Leisner's a terrific guitarist.  Zuckerman
can certainly play the flute.  Kondonassis rises, when the music lets
her, to the empyrean.  Werthen and I Fiamminghi have proved their Hovhaness
chops before (on Telarc CD-80392) in one of the best collections of this
composer on record.  This recording adds to their luster.

Steve Schwartz

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