Unheard Hovhaness


KALAN 773

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is among the most prolific of American composers. He has written so much music that even now, over twenty years since he exited the earthly plane, there remains much music that has not been recorded and manuscripts that await editing and publication. This beautiful recording fills some of those gaps.

First I must say that Hovhaness holds a special place for me personally as his music has always felt like a personal discovery. In my early teens I was immediately hooked when I first heard a recording of his second symphony, better known as “Mysterious Mountain” (in the Chicago Symphony/Reiner recording). It would be years before I attempted to grapple with the structure of his music but I knew it spoke to me.. Another piece which caught my still forming musical ear was his Allegro on a Pakistan Lute Tune from pianist Robert Helps’ classic survey of American piano music on CRI recordings from 1966. And in 1976 Hovhaness’ “Achtamar” was included in radio station WFMT’s bicentennial survey of American Music curated by composer/educator Raymond Wilding-White.

I later heard a broadcast performance from Oberlin of his Visionary Landscapes for piano which also grabbed my attention. I would later hear this in the recording and at a live recital in 2011 performed by Sahan Arzruni in Berkeley, California in celebration of the composer’s centennial (curated by legendary Bay Area Armenian-American composer/producer/educator/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian). I later purchased the two wonderful discs of piano music by equally legendary pianist/broadcaster/educator/new music advocate Marvin Rosen as well as a disc or two with the composer himself at the keyboard.

That brief personal history serves to illustrate some of why this disc is so exciting to me. This new recording is a sumptuous production that came in a little cardboard CD box with a distinctive design and gold stamped lettering. Inside is a CD in a matching cardboard slipcase and a high gloss paper booklet in three languages (Turkish, Armenian, and English). These useful notes describe the nature and sources of these compositions which are recorded for the first time, some from manuscripts which remain unpublished.

Arzruni is himself of Armenian extraction (born in Istanbul in 1943) and has been active as a pianist for many years as soloist and as a chamber music partner in a wide range of music. Some will recall him as the straight man playing in some of Victor Borge’s humorous recitals. Arzruni is a multifaceted artist whose knowledge and affinity for Turkish and Armenian music along with his firm grounding in the traditional western classical repertoire make him one of the finest interpreters of Hovhaness’ music. The pianists discography is diverse and interesting encompassing classical repertoire as well as fascinating niches of contemporary music from Turkey, Armenia, and their diaspora.

Sahan Arzruni with composer Alan Hovhaness

There are 34 tracks which contain 10 compositions. Some of the tracks require a percussionist (Adam Rosenblatt). All tracks are vintage Hovhaness. Though he is an American composer, born in Massachusetts, Hovhaness, in the tradition of learning non-western musics that traces to composers like Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, McPhee, Georges Enescu, and other proto-world music scholars who incorporated non-western scales, tunings, and compositional methods in their work. Hovhaness studied variously Armenian traditional music as well as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Javanese, and Balinese musics.

The first piece on this disc is the five movement “Invocations to Vahakn” (1945-6). Vahakn is, in Armenian mythology, a god who symbolizes martial victory. According to legend he saved the earth by slaying savage black dragons in pre-Christian Armenia. The first movement is for solo piano. The remaining four augment the piano with various percussion instruments including a thunder sheet, Chinese drums, a conch shell, Burmese gongs, and cymbals. This piece appears to have been recorded only once before in an excellent performance by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio on New Albion records.

Next up is another five (originally seven) movement suite for piano (this time without percussion), “Yenovk” (1951). This work went through several revisions ultimately culminating in it being renamed, “Madras Sonata” (1960). These five movements reveal various aspects of his compositional style including his imitation of non-western instruments and the use of various western and non-western forms. The five movements in the world premiere of this version of the work are: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Hovhaness was a master of counterpoint and fugue as can be heard here. This was dedicated to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a singer and friend of the composer who introduced him to Armenian traditional folk music.

Lalezar (1947) is for solo piano. The title is a Farsi word for “field of tulips” and, like many of Hovhaness’ works, it went through later transformations culminating in it becoming a song in the 1971 song cycle (The flute Player of the Armenian Mountains) written for the great Armenian bass singer, Ara Berberian.

The next three tracks contain the “Suite on Greek Tunes” (1949). It is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) whose performing repertoire included a great deal of American music. This appears to tbe the first recording of it. The three movements, wedding song, grapeyard song, and dance in seven tala. The last movement reflects Hovhaness’ interest in Hindustani music. Tala is a rhythmic form in that musical system.

Mystic Flute (1937) is a brief piece which is also based on tala. It was a frequent encore played by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff. The 1962 revision, given the Opus number 22 has been recorded but this is the premiere recording of the 1937 version originally published in 1942.

Journey into Dawn (1954) was originally titled, “Piano Suite No. 2”. This second of four piano suites composed in 1954 is cast in five movements: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, Alleluia. Again we hear the eclectic nature of the composer’s interests with elements here of sacred music, western art music, and Hindustani forms.

Laona (1956) was originally titled, “Genesee River” after the river which runs through Rochester, New York. Hovhaness was fond of the views of the river. He later changed the name of the piece in reference to the city in New York state where the Spiritualist Movement established a center in the mid-19th century. This is an impressionistic piece rather unlike Hovhaness’ other works in style but certainly of the same quality. This is its recording premiere.

The three movement “Lake of Van Sonata” (1946, rev 1959). The title refers to Lake Van, the largest body of water in Anatolia and was the center of the Armenian kingdom or Ararat. It was populated predominantly by Armenians from about 1000 B.C. until the Armenian genocide of 1915. In his liner notes Arzruni reports that he has abridged the first movement in collaboration with the composer. This sonata has been recorded at least twice before this release.

Vijag (1946) is a composition for two pianos. The title refers to the traditional Armenian fortune telling festival. Though the notes do not specify, it appears that Arzruni plays both parts. It is a world premiere recording.

The disc ends with a fairly large work, the eight movement “Hakhpat Sonata” (1948-51). It is scored for piano and percussion (apparently the only Hovhaness piano sonata that uses percussion). The percussion consists of a large Tam Tam and a kettle drum tuned to the note “G”.

This is the first recording of this piece whose title refers to a large monastic complex built in 976 CE. The monastery has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as of 1996.

This is a major release, a gorgeously recorded and produced CD album which fills essential gaps in Alan Hovhaness’ recorded legacy. The liner notes by Mr. Arzruni reflect his depth of knowledge of the music and his thorough research. All collectors of American Music, Armenian Music and lovers of piano music in general will want to have this disc. It is a gem.

Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain


Primjous Fountain (1949- )

Primjous Fountain (1949- )

I first encountered the work of this composer in 1982 in a broadcast concert of the Milwaukee Symphony that featured his Symphony No. 1. He was billed then as, “Primous Fountain III”.  I listened and, as was my obsessive practice, I recorded the work on a cassette tape so that I could listen again and not have the experience fade into obscurity.  I have listened many times to this wonderful piece and now in the age of social media one can find more of his music on his web page and his Facebook page.

Fountain was born in Chicago in 1949 where he attended Wendell Phillips High School and after graduation completed an orchestral piece Manifestation (1967) which was performed by the Chicago Symphony.  He has also had performances by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory under Gunther Schuller.  I was fortunate recently to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who is a lecturer and marketing representative for black composers who is in touch with Mr. Fountain.  He informs me that Mr. Fountain is alive and well and living in his native Chicago.

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Though largely self-taught he later studied with Hans Werner Henze and Gunther Schuller and these experiences seem to have been absorbed into the composer’s palette. In a 1972 interview with Charles Amirkhanian, conductor Harold Farberman and composer Charles Shere the then 20 something Fountain seems to react with disinterest to the apparently sincere  but rather uncomfortable efforts to address racial issues in music.  He speaks as though he feels his music to be so natural a part of his life that he reports his amazing abilities are simply normal to him. He seems unconcerned with the political aspects of being a “black composer”.   His instinct for complex things like orchestration are like walking or breathing, second nature.  His identity is in his music.

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

After hearing his youthful work Manifestation none other than Quincy Jones commissioned Fountain’s Symphony No. 2.  There is a performance by the Lugansk Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine under the baton of Miran Vaupotic available for listening on the composer’s web site as well as on You Tube which now sports a performance of the first two movements of his fourth symphony along with the second movement of his Cello Concerto and selections from other orchestral works.

His idiom might be called conservative in that it incorporates a standard orchestra and uses well-known forms such as Symphony and Concerto but his skill at writing is the point much as it is with other composers trained in schools like Julliard, Curtis, Berklee and the New England Conservatory.

His work sounds at times like a latter day Stravinsky with jagged rhythms and rich orchestration.  There is a passionate post-romantic intensity to the pieces I have heard.  I definitely want to hear more.

Fortunately there is now a YouTube channel dedicated to this composer’s work.  There are, however, no commercial recordings of this man’s music that I was able to find.  Here we see a prodigy who was embraced by many in the world of serious music and whose star appeared to have been rising.

But for all the love and attention that prodigies sometimes get it hardly guarantees exposure beyond their youth.  Fountain is not well-known but that has nothing to do with the quality of his music from what I have been able to hear.  And as sincere as the performances are in the MP3 and YouTube selections they are hardly the pinnacle of musical interpretation.  His music is complex and challenging to performers and I have no doubt that a major symphony orchestra with an insightful conductor could better demonstrate the power of his music.

One hopes that the body of music of this American composer will find an audience in his native country some day but limitations of arts funding and the plight of the black minority composer suggest that this will not be an easy path.  I hope that some enterprising young musicology student might take on the cataloging and analysis of his work to help this process.  Any takers?

Maybe the people at Naxos records or one of the many fine and creative independent labels who have recorded so much neglected music might take on the task of bringing some of this music to classical audiences.  It would be a loss to allow it to languish under-appreciated and largely unheard.  We truly don’t know what we’re missing and I think that is a terrible shame.

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Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)


James Anderson De Preist(1936-2013)

James Anderson De Preist
(1936-2013)

The recent passing of conductor James DePreist is a great loss to the world of classical music. I first encountered this man’s work when I bought a New World CD containing music by Milton Babbitt (Relata I), David Diamond (Symphony No. 5) and Vincent Persichetti (Night Dances). All performances are by the Julliard Orchestra under three different conductors of music by three different composers of about the same generation of east coast American Composers. De Priest conducts the Night Dances piece. He had studied under Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory.

De Preist had a fondness and a feel for contemporary music. Among his fifty some recordings (no reliable discography is available online just yet) he recorded music by Paul Creston, George Walker, Gunther Schuller, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Easley Blackwood, Aulis Sallinen, Giya Kancheli, Alfred Schnittke, William Walton, Nicholas Flagello and Joseph Schwantner among other more familiar names as well.

He was the nephew of Marian Anderson and cared for her in his home in Portland, Oregon until her death in 1993. De Preist was the conductor of the Oregon Symphony and served as it’s music director from 1980 until 1993. He conducted nearly all of the world’s major orchestras and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2005.

His passing this February, Black History Month in the United States, got me thinking about the legacy of black classical conductors. There have been a few luminaries that also deserve attention and I will attempt a short survey a few of those whose art has touched my own life.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman (1936- ), now retired, was the founder and music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, an alternative orchestra to the Chicago Symphony which played a distinctly different program from them introducing a great deal of new music by young composers along with an unusual selection of older music and some classical warhorses. His 9 LP survey recorded 1974 to 1979 and released by Columbia Records in 1986 of music by black composers is a landmark set of recordings surveying music by black composers from various countries with some emphasis on American Composers. He followed this in 2003 with 3 CDs of music by black composers on Chicago based Cedille records and has continued to give exposure to these unjustly neglected artists. Along with his promotion of black composers Freeman has recorded a great deal of 20th century music by other unjustly neglected masters such as Leo Sowerby, Meyer Kupferman, Bohuslav Martinu, Tibor Serly, Robert Lombardo, William Neil, Richard Felciano to name a few. He recorded a delightful complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos with frequent collaborator, pianist Derek Han (the set was incorporated into the Complete Works of Mozart released on the Brilliant Classics label).

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan who I recall as having been the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony from 1986 to 1990 under both George Solti and Daniel Barenboim. I had the pleasure of hearing him conduct the Chicago Symphony’s fine training ensemble, The Civic Orchestra, on several occasions.

Currently he is the music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, a post he has held since 1990. In that time he has done much to strengthen the orchestras standing artistically and financially and he has forged alliances with the Oakland Youth Orchestra and the Oakland Symphony Chorus.

Unfortunately Morgan has made few recordings but his choice of repertoire and championing of new music continues to endear him to critics and to bay area audiences.

Thomas Wilkins (1956- )

Thomas Wilkins (1956- )

In 2011 Thomas Wilkins became the first black conductor appointed to the Boston Symphony (a city historically resistant to integration in the 1960s). He is the conductor of that city’s youth orchestra.

He was appointed music director of the Omaha Symphony in 2005 and has held appointments with the Richmond Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the Florida Orchestra.

Henry Lewis (1932-1996)

Henry Lewis (1932-1996)

California born Henry Lewis was the first black musician to join a major symphony orchestra when, at the age of 16, he joined the double bass section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He became the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra when Zubin Mehta appointed him assistant conductor of that same Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1961, a post he held until 1965. He is credited with founding the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as well

Lewis is probably better known in the media for having been married to soprano Marilyn Horne from 1960-1979.

Carl Van Vechten's portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis in 1961

Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.

Horne credits Lewis with her early development as a singer.

Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)

Charles Dean Dixon
(1915-1976)

Dean Dixon, as he was known, was born in Harlem and studied at Julliard and Columbia University. He formed his own orchestra when racial bias prevented him from working in most settings and in 1941 gave a concert at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt who in 1939 famously arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she had been prevented by racial bias (and the Daughters of the American Revolution) from singing in any concert venue in Washington D.C.

While he did guest conduct the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadephia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony he left the United States in 1949 to further his career in overseas. He conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra during 1950-51, was principal conductor of the Gothenberg Symphony from 1953-60 (by popular demand), the HR Sinfonieorchester in Frankfurt from 1961-74, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1964-67.

Dixon returned to the United States and had various guest conducting engagements with major orchestras. And he conducted the Mexico City Orchestra during the 1968 Olympics. His legacy includes quite a few recordings made in the 1950s, some of standard repertoire, but some of American music like that of Randall Thompson, Leo Sowerby and fellow black American William Grant Still among many others. These were some of the first recordings I ever heard of much of that repertoire.

He, like those who followed him, did a great deal to promote the music of Americans and of the 20th Century in general. And his recordings are an important part of his legacy that remains largely untapped (though Naxos historical has reissued some on CD, bless their hearts). The racial bias he encountered is our American legacy. Dixon once defined three phases of his career by the way he was described. First he was the “black American conductor”. Then he was the “American conductor” and, finally he simply, “the conductor Dean Dixon.”