Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Marking the centennial of Alan Hovhaness

"My purpose is to create music not for snobs, but for all people, music which is beautiful and healing. To attempt what old Chinese painters called 'spirit resonance' in melody and sound."
- Alan Hovhaness

2011 is the centennial of the birth of the brilliant and prolific composer, Alan Hovhaness, whose work was profoundly influenced by the landscape of the Pacific Northwest during nearly three decades spent living slightly south of Seattle, in what is now the City of SeaTac. This final period of his illustrious career overlapped his position as Composer-in-Residence with the Seattle Symphony, which he held from 1966 until his death in 2000.

His symphonic works are often programmatic and constructed from lush layers of textured sound. Symphony No. 50, Mount Saint Helens (1982), which I heard performed by the Seattle Symphony earlier this month as part of the Hovhaness Centennial Celebration, is one particularly dramatic example, using mallet percussion, double-reeds and pizzicato strings to great effect.

His chamber music, although lesser known than his symphonic works, is also quite wonderful, exhibiting a range of styles and influences, from Renaissance polyphony to the traditional musical forms of Japan, Korea and the Caucasus Mountains. His Suite for Oboe and Bassoon, from 1949, is one particularly notable selection among many intriguing pieces.

Hovhaness was particularly drawn to mountains, whales and other large, epic elements of the natural world, but any list of his works also reveals an affinity for the smaller and more domesticated natural forms of cats.

But he was not limited to the inspiration he found in the natural world. His Armenian heritage and his explorations of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music had profound impact on his sacred works, which are rich and evocative.

Prayer to Saint Gregory, 1946:

To Hiroshige's Cat (Op 366), 1982:

Excerpted from the Hovhaness website:
"Investigation of Hovhaness’s best music reveals a unique and thoroughly convincing assimilation of highly disparate traditions coming to the fore and receding over the course of his career, including Renaissance polyphony, South Indian classical music, Japanese Gagaku music and Korean Ah-ak music. Of course, many 20th century composers flirted with such exotica, but in Hovhaness they find perhaps the most seamless alchemy of all because it was more than mere flirtation. It was a musical engagement on an aesthetic as well as technical level."
Elbiris (for flute and strings), 1944:

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