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HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 22 / Cello Concerto

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Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000): Symphony No. 22, Op. 236 "City of Light"

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 17

In life and music, Alan Hovhaness embraced the diversity of existence. The combination of an Armenian father and Scottish mother acted as converging cultural streams that shaped the composer’s compelling hybrid compositional style. His unique voice combined the accents and inflections of East and West, and of times ancient and modern. Weaving through this quietly powerful blending of cultures was a deep and reverent love for nature as Spirit manifest.

Yet if Hovhaness’ truly catholic (in the lower case, universal meaning) esthetic drew its initial impetus from this parents’ contrasting backgrounds, his outlook on life and music was also remarkably at one with the heritage of New England; he was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1911. Surely the spirit of Emerson and Thoreau–those still-resonant Transcendentalists–coursed through Hovhaness just as strongly as the blood of his parents’ rich cultures.

In 1962, Hovhaness moved permanently to Seattle, partly in response to the powerful and inspiring presence of Mt. Rainier. Four years later, he became Seattle Symphony Composer in Residence for the 1966-67 season. Living in the Northwest inspired him to compose his Mount St. Helens Symphony in 1983, three years after the volcano’s powerful eruption.

Varied and complementary as were the sources of his inspiration, a key to his music is Hovhaness’ unfailing melodic sense. "I believe in melody, and to create a melody one needs to go within oneself," said Hovhaness, adding, "I was very touched when [composer, friend and longtime advocate] John Cage said my music was like inward singing." His melodies are often long and arching, clear and consonant, generally modal, and run the gamut from Western diatonicism to rhythmically complex Indian ragas–with many cultural variants woven in. Echoes of Renaissance choral polyphony and Baroque instrumental part-writing course through much of his music.

Hovhaness also made judicious use of dissonance, though always within a tonal or modal context, and invariably as an expression of resolution-seeking tension. Of atonal music he said: "To me, [atonal music] is against nature. There is a center in everything that exists. The planets have the sun, the moon [has] the earth. Music with a center is tonal. Music without a center is fine for a minute or two, but it soon sounds all the same."

Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 22, City of Light, dates from 1971, the result of a commission from the Birmingham (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra in recognition of the city’s centennial celebration. Though one might reasonably assume that the title of the symphony refers to Birmingham, the composer clarified his intent: "I was thinking of a million lights, an imaginary city…" Such a response fits well with Hovhaness’ essentially spiritual perspective. In an almost Platonic sense, the "imaginary" city is more "real" than the actual metropolis, since it is the ideal form of which the "material" city is but an imperfect manifestation. The luminous–some might even prefer "numinous"–quality of this coruscating music conveys a sense of some eternal city beyond the limitations of time, space and texture. Yet the work has distinct roots in the composer’s life. The enchanting second movement, for example, is "a memory of a childhood vision I had…I was always affected by Christmas." The third movement, too, has roots in Hovhaness’ past, this time from his high-school years when he had composed an operetta titled Lotus Blossom from which he culled melodic material crying out for mature elaboration in his 1971 City of Light Symphony. A spirit of exultation permeates the aptly named finale, Hymn of Praise.

Whether one wants to call it an epiphany or needlessly harsh self-criticism, in 1940 Hovhaness destroyed an enormous body of his music–close to 1,000 works! Among a handful of pieces he spared was his Concerto for Cello of 1936. In three movements, the composer’s signature is clearly audible in its sequences of rich, sonorous chords and evocative use of old modes. Where it differs from his later music, including its companion piece on this disc, is the comparative lack of contrapuntal thinking, despite an early (and lifelong) love for Handel and Bach, those two nonpareil masters of polyphony.

Though he saved it from the trash bin, the Cello Concerto lay unplayed for nearly forty years until 1975, when driven by curiosity, the composer led a student performance at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, with the cellist Barton Frank as soloist in a concert presented free to students. This recording is the world première recording of this long-neglected score.

The concerto is laid out in three movements, though not in the traditional fast—slow—fast format. Here and elsewhere, Hovhaness tended to employ a slow—fast—slow mold. The music itself basks in luscious Oriental melodies, especially in poignant episodes featuring a single flute in dialogue with the solo cello. Even in 1936, the composer had a compelling interest in non-Western music, or more accurately, in fusing musical elements from different cultures and different eras in musical history. Decades before the emergence of Minimalists in the 1960s and 1970s, Hovhaness’ adoption of non-Western, non-goal-oriented music, set a precedent and served as a model for such spiritual heirs as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, as well as Arvo Pärt and Einojuhani Rautavaara. Only John Cage, Lou Harrison and Colin McPhee, among precious few others, were so prescient in their absorption of Eastern modes and thinking in their music.

Steven Lowe

© 2002 Seattle Symphony

Item number 8559158
Barcode 636943915820
Release date 05/01/2004
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Starker, Janos
Starker, Janos
Composers Hovhaness, Alan
Hovhaness, Alan
Conductors Davies, Dennis Russell
Hovhaness, Alan
Hovhaness, Alan
Davies, Dennis Russell
Orchestras Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Producers Tucker, Lawrence E.
Stern, Adam
Stern, Adam
Tucker, Lawrence E.
Disc: 1
Symphony No. 22, Op. 236, "City of Light"
1 Andante - Maestoso
2 Allegro
3 Andante
4 Allegro moderato
5 Angel of Light
6 Allegretto grazioso
7 Finale: Largo maestoso
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