Home > David Amos, Music > Remembering composer Alan Hovhaness

Remembering composer Alan Hovhaness

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–Alan Hovhaness is not a household name. You may never have heard of him. When he died in the year 2000 at the age of 89, our local paper did not carry his obituary. Nevertheless, Hovhaness was one of the most important and influential composers of the Twentieth Century.

Born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1911 of Armenian and Scottish descent, Alan Hovhaness Chakmakjian was a most prolific composer. He composed well over 40 symphonies, plus many orchestral, solo piano, choral, band, and vocal works. All his music bears the stamp of his very original style, which was a mix of orientalism and mysticism; because of his heritage and training, we see titles with the spirit of Armenia, India, the Near East and the Far East. Due to all these cultural influences, his music is very spiritual, and in no way did he follow the popular or scholarly trends of his contemporary fellow composers.

I was privileged and pleased to work directly with him for a few years, and conducted ten of his compositions in recordings. Invariably, this was music that gave satisfaction to the listener. On the whole, his music was not technically difficult to perform, but it made demands of the interpreters to dig deeply into the spiritual meaning behind the notes. This was always a challenge, as any work demands of its performer, but it was also very gratifying.

Although his early musical training was very traditional (He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music), in the early 1940’s he destroyed all his compositions up to that time and started afresh with the style for which he is so well recognized today. At first, he trained an amateur ensemble to play his music, but soon after that, as his reputation became better known, many major orchestras started to program his compositions. There are two legendary recordings that were made in the 1950’s, conducted by Andre Kostelanetz and Fritz Reiner.

During the years when I was recording his music, I had the opportunity to visit him at his home in the Seattle area. My memories of that visit are twofold: Stacks and stacks of sheet music everywhere, and more important, his calm, spiritual nature, and positive, healthy attitude about music-making. During our conversation, I asked him as to which of his works might I plan for future recordings. He humbly suggested his symphonies number 38, 39, 40, 41, and 42!

I recorded Hovhaness’ music with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Israel Philharmonic in Tel-Aviv, where we did his Horn Concerto with the late Meir Rimon as soloist, and several of his works for strings. I can still hear in my mind the vibrant sounds of the strings of the IPO as we rehearsed and recorded this music. (The concertmaster of that orchestra, Uri Pianka, will be visiting us in San Diego in March of 2011 to perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, together with the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra).

In London, there were two distinct highlights. One, was the recording of “And G-d Created Great Whales”, a work for large orchestra, superimposed with the actual recorded sounds of Humpback, Bowhead, and Killer whales. This was done in a cavernous London cathedral, with wonderfully warm acoustics, and reverberation time ((echo) that seemed to last forever. This piece, along with four others, form part of a compact disc album that is still the no.1 seller in the catalog of the prestigious Crystal Records label.

The other, recorded under more controlled studio conditions, was The Shepherd of Israel, for tenor and orchestra. Hovhaness composed this work in 1952, in honor of the founding of the State of Israel. The vocal lines were in the spirit of cantorial cantillation, and for this, what better than to have a real cantor do it? This came to be, as I was able to fuse to this work my association with our own Cantor Sheldon Merel, who has since retired from his position at San Diego’s Temple Beth Israel. It was a wonderful experience for all of us.

Alan Hovhaness left us a vast legacy of rich harmonies, flowing melodies, and the feeling that time stands still when we hear his music. Look for it and listen to it whenever you can, and be prepared to be transported.

Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world

  1. August 31, 2010 at 7:03 am

    Thank you Mr. Amos for this wonderful reminiscence of Hovhaness, a composer I and my wife have long admired. Two works we love especailly are the Mysterious Mountain concerto and the Shepherd of Israel piece, which we own on a Harmonia Mundi disc. Hovhaness always sounded to me like a voice of stillness in a chaotic world, yet for this he was both chastised and applauded. I suspect wherever he is now, he will have the last laugh.

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