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February 6, 2001

Modern Composers[Music of Alan] Hovhaness. "Spirit of Trees," Sonata for Harp and Guitar, Op. 374; Concerto for Harp and String Orchestra, Op. 267; "Upon Enchanted Ground," for Flute, Cello, Giant Tam-Tam and Harp, Op. 90, No, 11 Sonata for Harp, Op. 127; "The Garden of Adonis," Suite for Flute and Harp, Op. 245. Yolanda Kondonassis, Harp. (Telarc, CD # CD-80530) 2000.

American composer Alan Hovhaness, who died a few months ago at age 89, was one of the most prolific and most original composers of all time. He began writing music as soon as he learned to read it, at age four. Because his family disapproved of his writing, he wrote at night, in secret. By 1940, he had written over a thousand works, almost all of which he burned because he decided they were not of high enough quality. His surviving output includes over 400 works, including nine operas, more than sixty symphonies, and over 100 chamber pieces. This new recording from Telarc contains five works featuring harp, written from 1951 to 1983, including the world premiere recording of "Spirits of Trees," a sonata for harp and guitar.

Hovhaness's music is hard to categorize, not because there is so much of it, but because all of it is written in a unique style - a mixture of elements inspired by Eastern European, Indian, Japanese, and ancient Chinese music. Asked for some biographical information for a survey of American composers in 1949, Hovhaness wrote, "It is best that no mention be made of my scholarships or education because my direction is completely away from the approved path of any of my teachers...." His direction was set largely by his hearing music of the Armenian Church, then solidified by his study of oriental music. "To me," he wrote in 1965, "the hundreds of scales and ragas possible in Eastern musical systems afford both disciplines and stimuli for a great expansion of new melodic creations." And he spent his entire long career bringing about that expansion. At a time when most of his contemporaries were experimenting with atonality, Hovhaness steadfastly went his own way. "I am bored," he said, "with mechanically constructed music and I am also bored with the mechanical revolution against such music. I have found no joy in either and have found freedom only within the sublime disciplines of the East."

"My purpose," Hovhaness said, "is to create music...which is beautiful and healing, to attempt what old Chinese painters called 'spirit resonance' in melody and sound." His sonata "Spirit of Trees" achieves that goal wonderfully. The piece is in five movements and follows "not the Classical version of [sonata] form, but the early Baroque style which includes a number of short movements." The second movement is perhaps the most rewarding, though it is also the simplest, a canon based on a repeated four-note figure stated by harp. The third movement begins with a complex stream of chords echoing the opening movement, then evolves into a "vigorous two-voice fugue and a gracious pastorale." The piece is a perfect musical analog of the Asian art that inspired it - simple and complex at once.

You can hear the world premiere recording of "Spirit of Trees," Sonata for Harp and Guitar, by Alan Hovhaness on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, February 8 at 6:30 (half an hour earlier than usual) as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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