IN: Reviews

Hovhaness: Reverent, Mystical, Haunting


“A Tribute to Alan Hovhaness,” a collaboration of the Armenian Cultural Foundation and Mirak Chamber Music, seemed to be under the direction of Pasquale Tassone, a composer, impresario, interlocutor, and Town of Arlington worthy. Not only did he select an interesting if soft-focused miscellany as a tribute, he also composed/arranged a set of seven songs for the occasion, and welcomed us to the event in the stunning auditorium in Robbins Memorial Town Hall. Something of a mini–Symphony Hall with ornamental features similar to Jordan Hall, its acoustics warmly supported the various chamber groups and soloists. The grounds featured a couple of stunning bronzes from Arlingtonian Cyrus Dallin, currently at the immolation stake over his “Appeal to the Great Spirit” at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Hovhannes’s star has waxed and waned over his long life and since his death in 2000. The author of 500 works, including 70 symphonies “…has been stereotyped as a self-consciously Armenian composer, though his output assimilates the music of many cultures. What may be most American about all of it is the way it turns its materials into a kind of exoticism. The atmosphere is hushed, reverential, mystical, nostalgic,” according to Richard Buell.

The mystical composer proposed “to create a heroic, monumental style of composition simple enough to inspire all people, completely free from fads, artificial mannerisms and false sophistications, direct, forceful, sincere, always original but never unnatural…” mystically striving for nothing less than “the regeneration of mankind.”

Flutist Wei Zhao dispatched the opener, Hindemith’s Eight Pieces for solo flute, with authority, attitude, and pleasing colorations, highlighting the characters to the eight etudes and solving all the technical challenges easily. Some featured long, lazy lines, others rapid speech, and some even implied counterpoint. In the elegant, engaged, and often affecting performance, it made an impression similar to Debussy’s Syrinx and maybe anticipated Varese’s Density 21.5 in its originality. Did its exoticism set the stage for Hovhannes?

Then, the fearless Russian pianist Yelena Beriyeva mowed down Hovhaness’s relentlessly striking Macedonian Dance from 1960. Something of a folkloric Boogie Woogie, the 90-second work crested in a military forced march…sort of a jazzy Islamey Oriental Fantasy ― no prisoners taken. Khachaturian’s Toccata (1932) followed. Over its four-minute duration we heard whiffs of Rachmaninoff and maybe Scarbo, sparking brilliance, the occasional third-hand effect, and immaculate filigree. Beriyeva memorized both pieces and inhabited them with flair and artistry.

Pasquale Tassone’s Komitas Portrait (2021) worked lyrical magic in composing-arranging-transcribing seven songs of the Armenian mystic for soprano, marimba, and viola. According to Ara Ghazarians’s notes:

Komitas Soghomon Soghomonian (1869- 1935), an Armenian vardapet (celibate priest), musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music, one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology. Subsequent to the completion of his studies at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, he dedicated his Western training to build a national tradition.

During the Armenian Genocide—along with hundreds of other Arme­nian intellectuals—Komitas was arrested and deported to a prison camp in April 1915 by the Ottoman government. Having witnessed indiscriminate cruelty, horrors, and relentless massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, Komitas experienced a mental breakdown. He died in 1935 after having been confined in a psychiatric hospital in Paris, where he spent the last twenty years of his life in agony.

The collection of works of Komitas Vardapet is included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

My colleague Fred Bouchard used the words: “folkloric: elegantly poised, luscious timbres, moments of levity and joy as well as sadness and longing.” Mezzo-soprano Knarik Nerkararyan’s seamless legato, creamy quality and projection of words and moods won our hearts. Sylvie Zakarian’s quadruple mallets gave a marvelously exotic feel to the rosewood outpourings from the marimba. Whether in accompaniment ostinatos or important solos, she gave both support and forward flair. The viola part did not make a good impression.

Guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan moved his chair to the stage apron and proceeded to share his arrangement of Hovhannes’s confusingly titled Mystic Flute (for piano solo) from 1937. Light amplification allowed his instrument to bloom in the room. Bouchard imagined he was hearing and oud or sitar. The 14-member Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus then arrayed itself—women on stage behind the guitarist and men on the floor in front of him—for “How Lovely are Thy Dwellings.” An extended guitar solo began the first of four sections. Because of the resonant room and amplification, it almost spoke like an organ. Then we could enjoy Hovhaness’s evocative vocal writing. The soprano section of the chorus made a clear and focused contribution. The other voices felt hesitant and under rehearsed. Even in “Make a Joyful Noise, conductor Barry Singer couldn’t overcome plodding. Yet certain moments felt to me like a Bach Passion Chorale as improved by Vaughan Williams. Bouchard heard an Orthodox hymn. Larget-Caplan’s stretched chords, ethereal harmonics, and dramatic command impressed.

Why in the world did Telemann’s Trumpet Concerto in D Major TWV 51: D7 follow? Alas, the often-brilliant piccolo trumpet ministrations (up to a high E) of Michael Peipman, a fairly well-known jazz artist, did not quite completely cover the rather weak Menotomy Chamber Orchestra. The fact that the ten players seemingly eschewed vibrato made their vagaries of pitch and ensemble more obvious. The work opens uncharacteristically in an Adagio in which we could almost enjoy the poignant sonorities, but when the tempo sped up almost to the designated Allegro, the folks seemed to be courting disaster, despite the good offices of conductor Jing-Huey Wei. A couple more rehearsals next time, guys.

Peipman shifted to a B-flat trumpet and brought liquid tone and flexible phrasing to Hovhaness’s haunting Prayer of St. Gregory for trumpet and strings (also for piano or organ and strings). The chamber orchestra relaxed, now listening to one another, producing the required mysterious depths of feeling and patient weeping as the trumpet soared with cantorial reverence.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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