Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some Interesting & Lesser Known Hovhaness Wind Symphonies

Generations of music lovers from the beginning of time have all had their epiphanies, I would think, those moments when they are first exposed to some music that changes the way they hear, changes the way they think about what music is and can be. One way or another, the journey of musical connoisseurship must start somewhere. There must be one or more early formative moments where one is introduced fortuitously into musical styles that one has no idea about. For me it was in the brick-and-mortar shops, junk shops and record outlets of otherwise non-musical concerns where I found cheap and ready access to all kinds of unknown gems.

For example for me there was a 5 & 10 several towns away where, tucked in their basement, there was a quite interesting and eclectic assortment of classical cutouts, 99 cents each. I bought them without a clear idea of what they were, but it turns out there was much that for me became seminal. Some examples: a Concertgebouw recording of Bruckner's Third, Joseph Szgeti playing Prokofiev's Violin Concert No. 1, and, more to the point, a Heliodor re-release of what I assume now was an old MGM recording of the music of Hovhaness. (I could go on about the gems mouldering away in some archive now; some very interesting and obscure recordings long forgotten, originally released on MGM's modern classical series of the '50s, but another time for that.)

I plunked down the 99 cents for the Hovhaness with no idea what it was. It so happened that the influence of Ravi Shankar and the East in general was at a peak in the US. When I first listened to Hovhaness's strongly Armenian flavored music it seemed completely in line with that tonality of non-Western modal forms that I had already been exposed to, which of course it was, and I came to love that record very much. Time passed and I explored more and more of the Hovhaness opus, and found in him a major composer with another way through the dilemma of what to do after the demise of late Romanticism.

He nearly always had a modernist sensibility in terms of attention to the sound color of a piece, but he worked in a eastern modal idiom that set his music apart. And there was an archaism there too, which gave his music a timelessness I still feel. Most importantly his inventiveness within that quasi-modal idiom was and is second-to-none. He was a great melodist with a natural sense of good flow and self-imposed form.

Now i don't know fully how the very latest generation will be exposed to serious music. I expect the internet will allow any young budding pioneers in ear expansive explorations to find their way. For the youth, now as then, what's available needs to be inexpensive enough that experimentation and taking a chance on the unknown will be possible.

Of course Naxos is a modern institution where the young and old can be exposed to unfamiliar music priced low enough to make risk-taking unproblematic. To get to the point, I hope some kid like me stumbles on the release we discuss today. And I hope it is a revelation to that kid.

Namely, Keith Brion conducts the Trinity College of Music Wind Orchestra in a fine recording of three early to mid-period symphonies of the late American composer, Symphonies Nos. 7, 14 and 23 (Naxos 8.559385). All three works have not to my knowledge been recorded repeatedly, but are not in any sense lesser works for all that.

Hovhaness writes beautifully for brass, and one finds plenty of characteristic passages in these symphonies. There are searching, mysterious moments, moments of grandeur, and long expressive chorales (note especially the first and following movements of Symphony 23).

All three works are good examples of the Hovhaness style and since they cover a span of time from 1959-1972, give the listener a handle on its development.

Brion's interpretive performances are sharply focused, etched with clarity. The sound is terrific, the wind band brightly sonorous or murkily brooding as appropriate to the music at hand. In short, this is first-rate Hovhaness. It will give the newcomer to his music a good introduction; it will be a most welcome addition to the collection of Hovhaness admirers. He was one whose death in 2000 I personally mourned. But the music lives on, sounding as new and original as it did back when I first put that Heliodor LP on my father's clunky old turntable.


  1. Glad to stumble upon such a nice review! It might be worth adding thet the vigorous symphonies #7 and #14 here are quite different in mood to the restrained #23. As a fellow Hovhaness fan who also mourned his passing back in 2000, I would like to direct interested parties to an informative Hovhaness site at And there is another site gearing up for the Hovhaness 2011 centenary at

    I hope these are of interest. Best, Wayne.

  2. Thank you Wayne for your good words, your insightful additions and interesting links. A fellow Hovhanian is always welcome here! Come back again!