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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Alan Hovhaness Tribute

On Sunday May 17th, 2009 the sleepy bedroom community of Arlington Massachusetts held a big time tribute to one of its local heroes: composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000). Hovhaness ( Ալան Հովհանես in Armenian ) was born in neighboring Somerville, but grew up in Arlington and graduated from Arlington High School in 1929. He lived at 5 Blossom Street on "Turkey Hill" in a modest house that still stands today. As a child, the famous composer had attended the town's Cutter Elementary School and Junior High West (which is now the Ottoson Middle School).

There are still those in the area who met the composer and know members of his family. Composer Pasquale Tassone - himself an Arlington High School grad and now-retired Director of Music and Fine Arts - met Hovhaness in 1974. At that time the high school presented a concert of the distinguished composers' work, and Tassone turned around from conducting the masters' music in rehearsal to find the famous composer watching on. "He was very soft spoken," remembers Tassone. To this day Arlington High School maintains in its archives historic photos, documents, and communications with the composer.

Hovhaness repudiated his early works, destroying about a thousand scores in all. He was a recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships, attended the New England Conservatory, taught at Boston Conservatory (where avant gard jazz sax legend Sam Rivers was his student), and later joined the faculty of the Eastman School of Music. He was organist and choirmaster for St. James Apostolic Church of Watertown where he composed "sharagans" (hymns) for the church. Hovhaness is published by C. F. Peters, and I remember seeing many of his signed scores in the New England Conservatory library where he had generously donated copies (The Peters Edition website currently lists 321 works by Hovhaness in their catalogue). Hovhaness' career really got going when Leopold Stokowski premiered his Second Symphony with the Houston Symphony in 1955. Hovhaness moved to the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s, and quietly functioned as composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony for decades until his death in 2000.

The appreciation of Hovhaness was elevated to a new level thanks to the hard work of a Commemorative Committee formed for this purpose. Dr. Elizabeth Gregory acted the Honorary Chair and nearly twenty board members and affiliate organizations participated. Funds were raised for the various events relating to the Arlington Hovhaness celebration.

The initiator of the project and a member of the committee - Dr. Jack Johnston - was a neighbor of the young Hovhaness and knew the composer and his family personally. According to the Arlington Advocate, Dr. Johnson recounted this history at a small gathering at the former Hovhaness homestead with an outdoor performance by Boston University School of Music students. Turkey Hill residents looked on and listened in the yard, which was graciously made available by the current occupants of the house: the Spadafora family. Martin Berkofsky, a concert pianist who would perform Hovahness later that afternoon, had chosen to celebrate the event by running a marathon from Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire to the former Hovhaness house in Arlington. The run was to commemorate Hovhaness' life and his devotion to mountains (a recurring theme in his music).

Later that afternoon, using funds that had been previously raised by the committee, the Alan Hovhaness Memorial was dedicated in the center of town at the Whittemore Park on Mass Ave.

Following the outdoor memorial dedication, the public was invited to Robbins Town Hall for a free concert. The concert featured young musicians from Arlington High School as well as professional musicians. Representing AHS were the Madrigal Singers directed by Cheryl J. Christo and accompanied by Irina Chelnokova. They performed a short selection of works, but really stood out on "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night" by Hovhaness. Later, the Arlington High School Honors String Orchestra conducted by Sabato D'Agostino played his "Armenian Rhapsody Number 3."

The professional soloists included Hovhaness scholar and pianist Martin Berkofsky. Berkofsky had met the composer in 1971, and premiered his piano piece"Saturn" (Op. 243) at Carnegie Recital Hall in a concert dedicated entirely to music of the composer. Berkofsky chose to perform the second movement subtitled "Andante religioso" from the work "Dawn on the Mountain of Initiation" Opus 303 ("Sonata Ananda") by Hovhaness. It is a longish, but meditative piece that alternates between two themes. One theme draws upon a melodic hammered cymbalon effect (which he based on the sound of the Middle-eastern instrument known as the "kanoon"). The other contrasting theme is a sublime mystical chorale in 7/4 meter. His music has a tonal center, but is based on rich Eastern or "Occidental" scales that fill the room with vibrating harmonics and a distinctive shimmer of sound. Berkofsky expertly delivered the piece from a faded and worn manuscript copy of the score, and must have been coached by the composer himself on the details of the works' musical interpretation.

Hovhaness composed a large number of Symphonies: officially 67, but new ones are still being discovered. The Andante con nobilita movement of one of his Symphonies - Number 11 Opus 186 - was recently transcribed for piano four-hands by the young Niccolo Athens. It was performed in this version by Martin Berkofsky and Ani Hovsepian. As with much of Hovhaness' work, one can really appreciate the technical craft of his work. The composer is able to spin a web of thick counterpoint and never looses clarity in the process. His music is often slow and meditative, but speaks with a refined clarity of expression that seems to flow naturally. Hovhaness is not a composer who struggled for notes and who's music exhibits the inner conflict of composing. He wrote prolifically and without self-consciousness or inhibition.

Rounding out the concert were two works by guest composers who were acquainted with Hovhaness...

The work "Perseus" (after the Constellation) by Lexington resident Hayg Boyadjian was performed by flutist Orlando Cela and cellist Cynthia Forbes. It is a work that was commissioned by and dedicated to the former principal flautist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Doriot Anthony Dwyer. The work draws inspiration from the stars, and Boyadjian is an amateur astronomer and has based a number of his works on celestial objects of one kind or another. To me the work progresses as a self-contained and internally-unified set of variations. It logically explores melodic and harmonic materials derived from the opening unison melody expressively performed by Cela and Forbes. One of the many intriguing and standout moments in the work is the use of an arpeggiated three-note signature chord, It presents itself in the the two instruments in various forms, but often involves some fancy finger-work for the cellist and lots of natural harmonics across the cello's four strings. Forbes executed these effects well.

Concluding the concert was a new work by Pasquale Tassone. Tassone is a founder of the Lumen Contemporary Music Ensemble and now retired from his post as Director of Art and Music for the Arlington Public Schools. He composed "Dzon" (or Homage) specifically for this concert. His work draws upon, and borrows liberally from, ideas and musical devices that Hovhaness championed in his musical explorations. The work is sonically similar to Hovhaness, although Tassone interjects and reinterprets the classic Eastern scales, rhythms, and orchestral color to his own style. There are places where "Dzon" takes on the rhythmic vitality of a contemporary movie soundtrack, but the piece evolves nicely as a mini-concerto for marimba.

The marimba soloist, Sylvie Zakarian, is amazing. She had to navigate a lot of notes with only four mallets. The music is demanding for the soloist, but beautifully written and expressive for the instrument. The marimba has both melodic and percussive roles in the multi-section work. The AHS Honors String Orchestra did well, and sounded harmonics with clarity in the senza misura section which functioned as a prelude to the entire work. Tassone borrowed this technique from Hovhaness, who may have been one of the first modern composers in the West to notate music without a prescribed rhythm or meter.

After the concert, everyone came out on stage for a final bow and to acknowledge the standing ovation from the capacity audience at Arlington Robbins Town Hall. Everyone mingled and talked about the music over cookies and soda. A few local composers were present for the concert, including Betsy Schramm, John Kusiak, and myself. Hovhaness would have been pleased.