HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 38, Op. 314.

by Walter Simmons

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 38, Op. 314. Hinako Fujihara, soprano; Northwest Cham­ber Orchestra conducted by Alan Hovhaness. PANDORA PAN 3001.

After many years of exploring in virtual obscurity a highly distinctive musical pursuit, whose uniqueness in America has been shared, only partially perhaps, by Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and John Cage, Alan Hovhaness and his blend of archaic Western elements with aspects from a variety of Eastern musical cultures began during the 1960’s to achieve a substantial and broadly based following. This recognition was stimulated partially by the attraction of the youth movement to the work of Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar (remember “raga rock”?). However, there has always been much in Hovhaness’ music worthy of legitimate admiration, although the haste with which he composes and his apparent absence of self-criticism have resulted in an enormous body of music, much of which shows obvious evidence of re-cycling, over-extension, redundancy, and general carelessness. Yet from each stage of Hovhaness’ evolution, key works stand out as embodying a genuinely transcendental sort of spirituality, expressed with great subtlety and sensitivity. From the 1940’s there is the fiery primordial, yet visionary Armenian splendor of works like Lousadzak, Khaldis, and Anahid, alongside which Khachaturian sounds like middle-Eastern Muzak; and there are those evocations of early-Christian ecclesiastical ecstasy, such as Alleluia and Fugue, Avak the Healer, and the Celestial Fantasy.

During the 1950’s, these two threads were woven together, and combined with influences from India and Japan, in a profusion of highly varied, original, and fully convincing compositions, from the exquisite delicacy of a miniature masterpiece like Upon Enchanted Ground to the substantial, almost symphonic impact of works like the Concertos Nos. 7 and 8 for Orchestra, Talin, and the Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” and Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.”

During the 1960’s, what had hitherto been a relatively minor element in Hovhaness’ music—quasi-aleatoric waves of buzzing sound that rose in giant crescendos and then receded—began to assume central importance. This technique was often combined with a kind of slow, angular, canonic melodic style with sliding pitches, derived from ancient Korean music, giving birth to works that, at their best, as in Floating World-Ukiyo and Fra Angelico, evoke a spirit of wild, menacing chaotic power and frenzy, or timeless cosmic serenity.

In the 1970’s, another stage in Hovhaness’ evolution began to emerge, as he appeared to embrace certain harmonic and melodic materials that had previously seemed inimical to the diatonic purity of the Hovhaness idiom: he introduced a large dose of chromaticism  into his polyphony, and elevated the half-diminished-seventh chord to primary harmonic stature. Along with these harmonic innovations appeared a marked simplification of texture and, most of all, a distinct retardation of rhythmic motion. New works were longer, but the integration of structure and content necessary to sustain them was wholly absent. Of course, Hovhaness followers were used to wading through a dozen new works in search of a winner, but the winner seemed not to appear. Now, nearly 10 years have passed, during which time approximately 20 new symphonies have been added to the Hovhaness canon. Having become acquainted with nearly half of these, as well as a number of miscellaneous pieces, I have yet to discover a redeeming work from this period. True, some works, like the 24th and 29th Symphonies, have attractive moments that shine out from the surrounding mire. But, for the most part, these are long, tired, over­blown, and directionless behemoths that simply cannot sustain the attention of the most sympathetic listener. Yes, Hovhaness’ music has always been simple, and he has always sought to create a sense of serenity. But there is a difference between simplicity and simple-mindedness, and a difference between serenity and catatonia.

To take the 1978 Symphony No. 38 as an example: the work begins in a lovely, if familiar, hymnlike manner, proceeding soon to a vigorous fugue that raises hopes that the Symphony may signal a rejuvenation. The second movement is also fairly attractive. The third movement introduces the solo soprano (on this recording, the 68-year-old com­poser’s newly wedded wife). But by now the action has bogged down in a long, repetitious pentatonic flute solo, and the entrance of the soprano, who continues the melismatic line over a lightly scored accompaniment, does not provide the needed relief or contrast. From here on to the end of the nearly hour-long Symphony, the pace varies between moderately slow and unbearably slow. During this stretch of time, long cantorial lines are extended way beyond their ability to hold one’s interest, enriched by scarcely any tex­tural, contrapuntal, or harmonic involvement. The fifth and concluding movement, plod­ding along in the same vein as the foregoing, offers no sense of finality or summation; the music simply ceases. The overall effect is numbing, and one marvels sadly at the apparent absence of judgment exercised in the manipulation of large units of time duration.

The performance on this recording is presumably authoritative. The small orchestra from Seattle, Hovhaness’ current home, is rather tentative, but quite adequate technically, and the solo playing is competent. Soprano Hinako Fujihara’s unusually high range is challenged by the composer. The quality of her voice is extremely light and pure, but the limited dynamic and expressive range of the music does not give the listener a very full picture of her capabilities. The quality of the recording is borderline acceptable, but the surfaces are generally rather noisy.