Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Ghetto music celebrates the festival of lights
Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags stream outside our house in syncretic celebration of today's Hindu festival of lights - Diwali, and music of the moment is Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No. 22 'City of Light' in the Delos recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. Born in Boston in 1911, Alan Hovhaness's father was Armenian and his mother of Scottish descent. He studied at the New England Conservatory, and was organist at an Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts where his eclectic influences included the composer/priest Komitas Vartapet and, later, the Indian musicians Uday - brother of Ravi - Shankar and Vishnu Shirali. In 1942 Hovhaness won a scholarship to study at Tanglewood with Bohuslav Martinů. But he did not gel with the Tanglewood clique dominated by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, and the official Hovhaness web site reports that his music was ridiculed by the Tanglewood set, with, allegedly, Bernstein calling it "ghetto music" and Copland talking loudly (in Spanish) over an audition of one of his symphonies. After leaving Tanglewood Hovhaness continued to develop his unique composing style, which was shaped by both Armenian and Indian music. In the late 1950s he was a Fulbright research scholar in India where he studied with Carnatic musicians, and where, in an example of converging paths, he learnt the veena - the instrument of Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan. Hovhaness' output from this period includes the All India Radio commissioned Nagooran for Carnatic orchestra, and his Madras Sonata for two pianos.
Although Hovhaness' music was rejected at Tanglewood, his champions included fellow mavericks John Cage and Lou Harrison, with Cage supervising the publication of the piano composition Mihr in Henry Cowell's New Music series. With endorsement from a vigorously trending John Cage, and with a strong element of funding-friendly multiculturalism, Alan Hovhaness' relative obscurity may seem puzzling. But the reason is almost certainly the unforgivable tunefulness of his music. Despite Cage's advocacy, Hovhaness receives just one fleeting mention in Alex Ross' influential The Rest is Noise, while in Alan Rich's survey of twentieth century music American Pioneers, his oeuvre is described as "basically a conservative one, deriving much from the more garish repertoire of late-Romantic Russian composers, but often spiced with the long, sinuous melodic lines and rhapsodic rhythms of Middle-Eastern song and dance with the occasional use of traditional Asian instruments to expand the range of tuning". Alan Rich was almost certainly damning with faint praise, but that analysis actually provides a very good reason for reassessing Alan Hovhaness. He was an a contemporary of Benjamin Britten, so how about programming some of Hovhaness' music in 2013 at the expense of the ubiquitous anniversary holy trinity of Britten, Wagner and Verdi? A happy Diwali to all my readers.
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