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CLASSICAL  February 2006

CLASSICAL February 2006

Subject:

The Winds of Hovhaness

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 15 Feb 2006 10:35:19 -0800

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text/plain

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        Alan Hovhaness
        Music for Winds

  *  Symphony No. 4, op. 165 (1958)
  *  Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places, op. 213 (1965)
  *  Symphony No. 20 'Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain', op. 223 (1969)
  *  Prayer of Saint Gregory, op. 62b (1972)
  *  Symphony No. 53 'Star Dawn', op. 377 (1983)

John Wallace (trumpet),
The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Wind Orchestra/Keith Brion
Naxos 8.559207  Total time: 66:03

Summary for the Busy Executive: Imagined Armenia, Eden made audible.

This CD programs Hovhaness's music for symphonic winds, including three
symphonies.  Hovhaness composed so many symphonies -- 67, I believe --
that one finds among them seven or eight for band.  Some of these works,
believe it or not, have appeared on record before.  For example, A.
Clyde Roller and the Eastman Winds gave a terrific performance of the
Symphony No. 4, a classic LP of the stereo era.  (available on Mercury
Living Presence 434340).  The only work actually new to me is the Symphony
No. 53 "Star Dawn."

Hovhaness wrote quickly.  Hovhaness wrote a lot.  Not all of his music
sticks with you.  He is a composer with a manner, or rather several
sharply-identifiable manners.  You can identify a Hovhaness piece as
quickly as you can recognize a van Gogh oil or an E. E. Cummings poem.
Sometimes a Hovhaness piece will just lay there, like a beached whale,
or an eccentric, garrulous uncle who has outstayed his welcome.  You
seem to have heard it all before.  Yet when it works, it's powerful.
Like Mahler, Hovhaness has his personal set of musical images: the
chorale, the solo arioso against a chordal mass, the "spirit murmur" (an
aleatoric device, usually reserved for strings plucking away at different
tempi), the climactic modal fugue.  The composer joins this to a visionary
point of view, and the visions encompass universes and worlds, much as
Hindu and Buddhist ones do.  The composer helped pioneer assimilating
Eastern musical devices into Western concert music, and indeed actually
won a Guggenheim to study in Japan.

The fourth symphony is definitely one of those pieces that work, though
if you looked at a score, you probably wouldn't see how.  One looks (and
listens) in vain for the normal variations on tiny musical cells.  Instead,
the andante first movement, for example, consists largely of sinuous
solo melodies (punctuated by discreet percussion) giving way to sonorous
brass chorales, and all capped by a big-breathed fugue.  None of these
things has much to do with the others, but the quality of inspiration
reaches such a high level, the composer takes you along with him, whether
or not you feel you should go.  The second movement consists of a quick
dance for marimba and then for xylophone, separated by a song-like section
for solo winds, solo brass, and harp -- a very rough A-B-A structure,
at least as orchestration goes.  One can also view the structure as A-A'.
The composer builds much of the piece on a pedal note (a note in the
bass that doesn't change), with the primary lines skirting above it.
The marimba skips over one drone (section A), the xylophone (more than
halfway into the movement) on another (A').  This could easily step over
the line into boring, but Hovhaness has mastered the art of variety.
One's interest doesn't flag, despite the lack of harmonic movement.
The "andante espressivo" finale serves almost as a mirror to the first
movement.  Instead of solo lines interrupted by chorales, we get mostly
chorales connected via solos.  However, the chorales are thematically
akin.  This back-and-forth lasts until two remarkable passages: a bass
trombone soloing below sliding trombones and a glitter of percussion,
like fireworks against a night sky.  These serve as the bridge to a
resonant fugue based on the main strain of the chorale, which caps off
the symphony.

I dimly recall that Brion has recorded Return and Rebuild the Desolate
Places, at one time also known as the trumpet concerto, before, with a
young Gerard Schwarz as the soloist.  John Wallace, first trumpet of the
Philharmonia and head of the John Wallace Collection brass ensemble,
does the honors here.  The work is in two movements, which the composers
characterizes as a short prelude and a hymn.  He also likens the solo
trumpet as the voice of Cassandra.  Indeed, after the first statement
of the trumpet, the orchestra seems to explode, a roar of doom leaving
a desert in its wake.  The last movement, about three times longer than
its predecessor, begins with the trumpet singing gorgeously over a largely
chordal accompaniment.  Lou Harrison remarked -- with more than a little
inflation -- that Hovhaness was the caliber of melodist that came along
once every couple of hundred years.  If not quite that, Hovhaness certainly
could knock out a great line.  The movement grows increasingly contrapuntal
without the trumpet losing its primacy.  The wind writing throughout is
extraordinarily beautiful.

Symphony No. 20 'Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain' is laid out very
much like the fourth -- two slow movements framing a faster one based
on two drones -- and it shares the same rhetorical strategies.  However,
the composer has expanded his harmonic language.  We deal not only with
consonant harmonies but tone-cluster dissonances as well.  The music
also "feels" bigger, although structurally it strikes me as much looser
than the fourth.  The composer describes the symphony as three very
different pilgrim's marches: the first stately, perhaps coming through
a mist; the second livelier with the sound of cymbals, bells, and drums;
the third, a chorale and fugue.  The third movement interests me the
most.  The chorale as such lasts less than half the piece.  The fugue
shoulders the brunt of the movement.  However, the fugue practically
sneaks in, as it were, before Hovhaness throws in a pot-load of contrapuntal
toys: stretti, canon, augmentation and diminution, and so on.  Nevertheless,
it turns out that the chorale provides the material between successive
fugal statements and in fact caps the movement.

Prayer of St. Gregory serves as an intermezzo in Hovhaness's opera
Etchmiadzin.  It's probably the only music from the opera I've heard.
It exists in two forms: solo trumpet with strings and solo trumpet with
winds.  I prefer the string version.  Because the CD is devoted to wind
music, we get the B version.  Nevertheless, this piece heads straight
for the heart.  Again, it features the familiar Hovhaness device of an
arioso solo instrument against a chorale.  The composer describes the
music as "a prayer in darkness."  Within its brief span, the trumpet
climbs its own stairway to heaven.

The possibility of Mars colonization inspired Hovhaness's Symphony No.
53 'Star Dawn,' in two movements, which the composer thinks of as "journey"
and "arrival."   Doesn't sound like a particularly promising source, but
you don't always get what you expect.  This is no Star Trek soundtrack.
Indeed, it's Hovhaness doing familiar things: chorale, monodic arioso,
fugue.  Yet, it is no more a rehash of old ground than any two Mahler
symphonic marches are.  This really is new music.  I think particularly
of an amazing passage in the first movement: a solo clarinet line against
a delicate backdrop of tubular chimes, timpani, and tam-tam (gong).  On
paper, it comes across as a tour-de-force.  In performance, it sings
with a weird beauty, emphasis on the beauty part, even though some small
voice whispers beneath the music, "How the hell did he think of that?".

Brion has long been recognized as a top wind man.  From his Scottish
players he gets not only precision but deep musicality.  It's hard to
keep the (at times) near-glacial movement of Hovhaness's music going,
but it does indeed move, and Brion sees to it.  John Wallace plays at
the level you expect from one so eminent, but, really, every soloist
(and there are a lot of them in these works) invest their lines with
the same artistic forethought and care.

The sounds of the band are rapturously beautiful, and it's on Naxos.
How can you resist?

Steve Schwartz

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