HOVHANESS Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken.” Meditation on Zeami. Floating World. Ode to the Temple of Sound

by Walter Simmons

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken.” Meditation on Zeami. Floating World. Ode to the Temple of Sound • Chung Park, cond; Frost SO • CENTAUR CRC-2954 (58:00)

Here is a new release of music by Alan Hovhaness that will be largely unfamiliar to most listeners. The only one of these pieces that has been previously recorded is Floating World, written in 1964 for André Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic, who gave the premiere shortly thereafter, and then recorded it for Columbia Masterworks (MS-7162). However, Kostelanetz seemed to think that his devotion to Hovhaness’s music entitled him to modify it at will, in this case tightening it up a bit by shaving almost a minute off its duration. Therefore, the performance offered here is billed as the “First Complete Recording,” although given the “loose” nature of the composer’s approach to form, the impact of the cut is negligible; and Kostelanetz’s was otherwise a fine recorded performance.

The program assembled here highlights the years 1963-1966. Hovhaness had just spent time in India, Japan, and Korea, studying the indigenous music of those countries. What he discovered left a major impact on his own compositions during those years and shortly afterward, adding a number of new devices to his compositional palette. Interestingly, the timing of his incorporation of these new devices corresponded to some of the modernist trends then drawing the attention of critics and commentators. During those years Hovhaness turned away to some extent from the modal counterpoint, triadic harmony, and specifically Armenian sources of inspiration that had characterized so much of his music up to that point. Instead one heard much secondal (cluster) dissonance, stentorian unison melodies accompanied by clanging bells, dissonant canons at the unison, portamento (sliding tones) in the trombone and other instruments as well as the strings. There was also a greatly increased use of quasi-aleatoric senza misura passages (controlled chaos), in which each instrument repeats its own, somewhat different material without specific rhythm or tempo, the duration and dynamics of these passages suggested in the score, but controlled by the conductor. (Hovhaness had actually devised this technique during the mid 1940s, but it became one of his primary devices during the 1960s. Some works, such as the Symphony No. 19, “Vishnu” [1966], consist of virtually nothing but such passages.) Many of these techniques grew out of the composer’s fascination with the music of Japanese Gagaku and Noh drama, as well as from attempts to replicate the sounds of some Japanese instruments. The pieces from this period represent Hovhaness’s most “modern”-sounding music, as well as the music whose impact is most purely “sonic.”

Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken” (named for an ancient Armenian god) is an exception to the generalizations above. It was largely composed in 1944, although revised in 1963; hence its connection with the rest of the program. I must confess that it is not one of my favorite Hovhaness symphonies, although this is largely due to my subjective distaste for the Ionian mode (otherwise known as the major scale), which pervades the outer movements of the work. The symphony shares much in common with the composer’s other works from the 1940s; the 1963 revisions are not obvious. Its style reveals many usages associated with the explicitly Armenian pieces, although annotator Marco Shirodkar (Hovhaness authority and curator of the excellent Web site www.hovhaness.com) identifies the music of India as the dominant source of inspiration. Much of the first movement is pervaded by simple melodies accompanied by drum and polymodal counterpoint played pizzicato by the strings. The brief second movement is most uncharacteristic: a delicate minuet that almost recalls Ravel, highlighted by flute, accompanied by string pizzicati (very similar to the second movement of the Concerto No. 8 [1957] for orchestra—one of the composer’s masterpieces). The third movement is similar in concept and content to the first, whose material returns at the conclusion of the work.

Meditation on Zeami
 was composed in 1963 for Leopold Stokowski (another Hovhaness champion), who conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in the work’s premiere (which I attended some 45 years ago). (The notoriously provocative Stokowski was surprisingly timid about employing some of Hovhaness’s more unusual techniques, such as the portamenti, and tended to “downplay” them.) Zeami was one of the pioneers of Noh drama during the 14th-15th centuries, so in this 15-minute work the composer gave full rein to the Japanese-inspired techniques described above.

Floating World
 was composed the following year and, based on a Japanese epic and related concepts, its content and treatment are very similar to those found in both other works composed at this time. However, I find Floating World to be the most convincing and effective of all Hovhaness’s pieces from the period discussed here. This is partly because its primary melody (which the composer believed to have healing properties) is unusual and boldly striking, but also because it reveals a sense of powerful and concentrated dramatic focus, with something approaching a true “climax”—quite unusual for this composer, while capturing the sense of wild abandon for which he often strove less successfully.

Ode to the Temple of Sound
 was commissioned for the inauguration of Jones Hall in Houston in 1966. Sir John Barbirolli led the Houston Symphony in the premiere. Of all the pieces on this program, this is the one in which the element of instrumental color and sonority is most dominant—understandable in light of the circumstances of the commission. The treatment of the orchestra is lavish, with an emphasis on dynamic extremes that range from passages of ethereal delicacy to explosive outbursts. A central dance-like melody is a little heavy-handedly pentatonic, and is treated with primitivistic polymodal counterpoint.

These are generally very good performances. The Frost Symphony Orchestra is in residence at the University of Miami, while conductor Chung Park (presumably Korean), who also served as the producer of the recording, is based in Idaho, although the disc was recorded in Florida. Despite the frequent association of Hovhaness with the “New Age” sensibility, and with mystical evocations of spiritual serenity, there was also an angry, violent side to this composer, and he often complained that performances failed to capture this aspect of his expression; he was also frustrated that conductors—like Stokowski, as noted above—lessened the impact of some of his more original devices. Though adequate to the challenges of the music, the Frost Symphony does not meet the highest standards with regard to precision or refinement. But what is most valuable about all the performances on this recording is that they really go all out in emphasizing the music’s extremes—dynamic contrasts, both delicacy and power of sonority—as well as the other unusual devices. During the days of LPs, where much of Hovhaness’s music first appeared, these extremes had to be compressed to avoid distortion or to be audible above surface noise. But today, with the advances in digital recording technology, this music is freed to achieve optimal sonic impact.