Reminiscences from an Unsung Hovhaness Champion...
Lawrence Sobol Reminisces on 30 Years of Knowing and Working with Alan Hovhaness
One of the staunchest supporters of Alan Hovhaness's music during the last three decades of his life was New Yorker Lawrence Sobol. In a multi-faceted career as clarinetist, conductor, impresario, teacher, publisher and author, Sobol drew upon the full gamut of his experience in his championing of Hovhaness. Since the early 1970s, when he first came to prominence on the New York music scene with his Long Island Chamber Ensemble, Sobol initiated numerous recordings, performances, publications, transcriptions and commissioning of major Hovhaness works.
Having performed extensively throughout America and Europe as soloist, with orchestra and in recital, his collaborations include artists such as Jessye Normanm, Richard Tucker, and the late Luciano Pavarotti and Richie Havens, among others. As well as Hovhaness, distinguished composers who sought out Sobol's talents were Roy Harris, David Diamond, Virgil Thomson, and Karel Husa, among others.
Lawrence Sobol has been described by the New York Times as "an intrepid musical explorer", an accolade which aptly highlights a kinship with Alan Hovhaness. Although a long-respected name in the Hovhaness community, it is perhaps a measure of Lawrence Sobol's humility that the true scale of his accomplishments for Alan Hovhaness remain something of a well-kept secret; the interview below attempts to address this oversight. In August 2010 Sobol generously took time out from his schedule to talk to Marco Shirodkar about his long-standing friendship and numerous musical projects with Alan Hovhaness.
MS: Lawrence, thank you very much for agreeing to share your first-hand memories of Hovhaness and his music. I've known your name since I was first loaned an LP recording of Saturn as a teenager, but over time discovered one recording after another with a connection back to you, and so learned that in fact many Hovhaness recordings and compositions simply wouldn't exist had it not been for you.
LS: Well, we had a long and wonderful relationship over some thirty years, and the fact that we both lived in New York in the early years meant that I got to see him often.
Obviously you saw less of him when he moved to Seattle, but you still kept in contact?
Yes, in fact we stayed in touch until almost the end; I came out to visit him a few times. When he shook your hand it was with a gentleness that was almost unearthly, and there was no effort, it was just very natural. Right to the end he had a presence that was just otherworldly. On one occasion, Hinako [Mrs. Hovhaness] arranged a day for Alan and me to listen to his music. Hinako's dedication to Alan was apparent; she gave him an abundance of love and was concerned with all the details in his life, from his nutrition to his music. I asked him, "Do you still listen to music?" and Alan responded something like "I do hear Schubert." I wrote about that in more detail in the notes from the Saturn live concert-lecture album on Grenadilla Records.
I'd like to touch on the Grenadilla release shortly, but prior to that came many LP recordings on the composer's own Poseidon Society label, which were what first alerted me to a living composer doing very much his own thing.
Well, you can imagine what it was like for me when I first heard his Mysterious Mountain conducted by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. In addition, I became familiar with Psalm and Fugue, and his famous brass quintet Sharagan and Fugue, in addition to the old MGM Hovhaness recordings. And then I played his Divertimento for woodwinds in 1961, when I still didn't know anything about Alan Hovhaness.
So from distant admirer to associate and friend, how did the first meeting come about?
I first met Hovhaness in April 1971 at a performance in Carnegie Recital Hall, where my group the Long Island Chamber Ensemble played a piece called O Lady Moon, a song whose text came from [Lafcado Hearn's] A Japanese Miscellany — it was the second work of Alan's I performed publicly. It was scored for soprano, clarinet and piano. There were people performing the work before I became familiar with it, and Alan was invited by the [ensemble's] soprano Kate Hurney, through CF Peters, to attend the concert and, lo and behold, he showed up! We had established a little relationship with him, while we were still in our twenties. It was not uncommon in New York to meet very distinguished people in general, but this was very different because Alan showed up wearing his classic looking suit and big tie, even though he was pretty frail in those days. It was striking to see this giant as a real person. Then in the summer of 1971 he wrote the large-scale composition Saturn, a cantata for soprano, clarinet and piano. Subsequently, we performed parts of Saturn live at the studios of radio station WQXR before its first performance, with host and renowned New York Times music critic Robert Sherman.
Are you saying that Hovhaness wrote Saturn for your ensemble without being asked?
That is correct. He was moved by our performance of O Lady Moon and was inspired to compose Saturn. I received the large score and parts while I was studying in Salzburg, Austria with the Vienna Philharmonic's clarinetist Rudolph Jettl. I was so excited when I received this package and saw that it came from Alan Hovhaness; it was truly exhilarating. The world premiere took place at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York at an all-Hovhaness 60th birthday concert. The interesting dynamic about that concert was that Alan invited numerous people, and everybody showed up. Also at the concert was Oliver Daniel, a great admirer of Alan's music, and of course, he was the creative force at BMI Classical Music. Many people from the dance world attended the concert as well as American composers and devotees. The concert was sold out with a standing room only crowd.
This 60th birthday concert was our way of thanking Alan for composing Saturn, as there was no commission involved and there weren't many concerts of his music in New York at that time.
Hovhaness said his model for Saturn was Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock, so do you see any musical links other than the scoring?
Well, I think that there's a spiritual similarity. The Schubert is earthly, the Hovhaness unearthly, but they're both compositions about love, distance, warmth and extremely personal visions and otherworldly expressions. Since Hovhaness loved Schubert, he thought that he would write it for that classic combination — soprano, clarinet, piano — if it was good enough for Schubert, he said, it was good enough for Hovhaness.
At the same concert you performed his Lament for solo clarinet, which Hovhaness once said had links with Indian music. Can you shed any light on that?
Initially there was a clarinetist named Efrain Guigui, who played the Lament in the early days, but then I became familiar with the work and performed it a few times. Then Alan asked me to perform it on WQXR, which was the time we also performed about three excerpts from Saturn. I remember Robert Sherman was so fascinated by the new work that he asked us to perform several additional movements. I remember from the recording of the broadcast that Alan was extremely animated in his commentary. Lament had South India's Karnatic feel of the repeated ostinato and virtuosic ornamentations growing out of the bass tones. It doesn't appear virtuosic although it is, because you [not only] have to make the instrument sound beautiful in the traditional sense, but also play in the style of the music. Alan was a great help in teaching me the style. He liked the music played freely with the sense of a hypnotic spell by emphasizing the repeated low notes. The music should sound improvised, similar to the music and dances of South India. Alan learned the style from the great Indian dancer Uday Shankar, older brother of Ravi Shankar. At the same time, if you were to ask Alan a question about phrasing, he would say "Oh, just approach it like Mozart." He was certainly one of the pioneering composers to fuse Eastern and Western music. In the 1940s and 1950s, we didn't have music courses that were specifically about ethnomusicology and world music; however, Hovhaness was creating cross-cultural music way before the concept of "world music" became mainstream.
The Lament occurs, virtually in its entirety, toward the end of the 1966 Vishnu Symphony. Did it exist previously, or was it recycled from the symphony into a solo chamber vehicle?
I believe the Lament goes back to before Vishnu, circa 1959.
Now of course you recorded Saturn firstly in 1972 for Poseidon, Alan and his wife's own label, and then again in an historic Hovhaness live lecture-concert in the fall 1975?
Yes, although my Long Island Chamber Ensemble personnel changed throughout the years, as can be seen from the first and second recordings of Saturn. I remember how excited Alan was by this particular live recording which was done in Southampton, New York. The whole artistic community of the East End of Long Island turned out for the concert, and Mark Acheson, the music critic and brother of Dean Acheson (former Secretary of the Navy), gave it a fantastic review. The concert hall had the excitement of a rock concert; Hovhaness received a thunderous applause and a long standing ovation. The audience was treated to a reception following the concert, and Alan, the star of the evening, was given reverential treatment.
At this time in the 1970s, how often was Alan's music being done around New York?
There was the occasional performance. I remember being at Carnegie Hall and Alan and I were in the elevator with [conductor] Andre Kostelanetz, and it was before a performance of Floating World. Kostelanetz was a great champion of Alan Hovhaness' symphonic compositions, and was responsible for many commissions with the New York Philharmonic as well as many other major orchestras. I attended many of his premieres in the 1970s when he lived in or visited New York. During this period of time, I was able to arrange several commissions for Alan. I helped facilitate the commissioning of The Way of Jesus, a major choral work for soloists, large chorus and orchestra. Maestro Laszlo Halasz, founder and first music director of the New York City Opera (at the request of Mayor Fiorello Laguardia), commissioned this composition. I had the privilege of performing for many years in both operatic and symphonic performances under Halasz. So he knew of my relationship with Hovhaness and asked me to set up a meeting.
I was coming to The Way of Jesus. Although Hovhaness did not observe the Christian faith, this ended up being his biggest choral work ever. Whose idea was it to commission the piece?
That was Halasz, and it ended up being a large-scale composition with well over an hour's music. Halasz was a pupil of Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály in addition to being assistant conductor to Maestro Arturo Toscanini. Halasz wanted Alan to compose a major mass including folk elements, similar to the many compositions of Hungarian composers Kodály and Bartok. The new work was to be performed at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. At the performance, approximately 5,000 people attended and were treated to a holy experience. I think Halasz introduced [celebrated soprano] Eva Marton at that concert and it was certainly a major event. The Way of Jesus was performed in its entirety with full symphony orchestra, large chorus and soloists, and I felt wonderful that this project came to fruition.
Then of course, there was another huge choral piece, Revelations of St. Paul. That was performed by Musica Sacra conducted by Richard Westernberg, a Hovhaness devotée. It was commissioned independently by a gentleman in the chorus who greatly admired Alan's music. I spoke to Alan about this proposed commission, and when I told him Richard Westernberg would conduct the world premier with Musica Sacra, he agreed to accept the commission. The first performance of Revelations of St. Paul took place at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center.
An earlier commission was the Ani Symphony and the Poseidon Society LP sleeve notes state that it was "commissioned by the Smithtown Central High School Symphonic Band, conductor Lawrence Sobol". How did that come about?
In 1972, I was speaking with Alan in his hotel room, and during our discussion I mentioned that I'm presently working with an outstanding group of high school wind and percussion musicians, and I asked him if he could compose a short work, maybe five minutes in length. And then, over a period of a few months, it evolved into a full-blown, large-scale wind symphony. Ani has become one of his best-known compositions for wind symphony.
In those days he lived in two New York hotels, the Hotel Bryant and the Alvin Hotel. I asked, "Alan, why do you live in the Alvin Hotel?" He said, "Where else can I have my initials on the front of the building?" These hotels were located in mid-town Manhattan, around 53rd Street. I think it was at the Hotel Bryant where he composed his music on a makeshift desk comprising several milk carton boxes to act as the base of the desk with something like an old door serving as desktop. The room was poorly lit as he continued working in what appeared to be most uncomfortable circumstances. Prior to my first visit with Alan, I imagined that this famous American composer would be living in one of the high-end hotels, but actually both hotels where Alan lived were old mid-town transient locations. One day, the elevator didn't work, so we had to walk up the fire escape staircase. But he didn't care, it meant nothing to him — he was comfortable and just did his work.
Anyway, I said to him back then that I had the opportunity to have a work commissioned, and this really was the first thing that I asked him to write. I asked if he could write just a short, maybe 5-minute piece for some very outstanding 16, 17, and 18-year old musicians. And then over a period of a few months it turned out to be a full-blown, large-scale wind symphony.
Had you requested the work to have an Armenian theme?
No, I'd put no restrictions or barriers on the composition. Alan told me that Ani was a city known for having 1,001 cathedrals and he considered it to be a beautiful place. Since the inception of the Ani symphony, I have always admired the abundance of original musical styles that Hovhaness incorporated into traditional compositional techniques. I particularly have always loved the slow movement, which is prayer-like. In this symphony Hovhaness used his techniques of "spirit murmur" and "controlled chaos", which I never considered to be chaotic, for me it was just a musical idea, not unlike "free jazz" developed by Ornette Coleman. The work also employs the use of chromaticism, his "dragonfly" musical impression, and a majestic and triumphant finale that has been part of his trademark. In my opinion, it is not Armenian themes that make the fabric of the work, but the brilliant use of Hovhaness' original melodies, use of counterpoint and spirit that will enable the work to live in music history.
Then after Ani, Alan wrote a couple of clarinet quartets called Ruins of Ani. There was an early version and a later version. I used to walk with Alan to Circle Blueprint where they reproduced his scores and parts on Ozalid prints. Even at a print shop, they knew Alan Hovhaness was a special man and they treated him with an abundance of respect. He was an eccentric guy, but he had a definite practical side, and it was his gentleness and his reverence for some type of great spirit that was so amazing.
You were also involved in Hovhaness conducting his Ani Symphony in 1989.
Yes, in that Ani Symphony performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alan conducted the finest wind players in New York, a freelance group that showed tremendous respect to Hovhaness. The uncanny story behind that 1989 Millennium of the Ani Cathedral concert was that the great earthquake happened in Armenia one week before the concert. And the Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, who put that whole festival together on the history of Ani, called me and said [in an Armenian accent] "even though there's this great tragedy in Armenia now, I want you Mr. Sobol to continue with Mr. Hovhaness on this concert, and [with] the spirit of the Armenian people." At the event, Alan received a ten-minute standing ovation from a sold-out crowd. The audience was composed of mostly Armenians between the ages of 40 and 90, and when I walked with Hovhaness down Fifth Avenue to the auditorium these people would come over to him and say "Oh, Alan Hovhaness!" …they looked at him like he was the musical muse.
The latest recording of Ani should be out now with Keith Brion conducting. Keith and I have known each other approximately 40 years; we go back a long time.
In 1970, a couple of years before Ani, came the rather more famous And God Created Great Whales for orchestra with recorded whale songs. I gather conductor Kostelanetz didn't like the first version of Whales and asked Hovhaness to write another version?
I think that's correct. This piece, And God Created Great Whales, was a major commission from Andre Kostelanetz. As a result, Hovhaness complied with Kostelanetz's requests because that's how a composer survived in the material world. It is interesting to note that And God Created Great Whales became one of Hovhaness' most famous compositions. And I also remember Alan telling me that he did not want to use the pre-recorded sounds of humpback whales; he wanted to do it using only the instruments of the orchestra, and his use of trombone glissandos does sound very much like the sounds of the humpback whales.
During this period Alan and his previous wife Elizabeth (whose Indian name was Naru), started their own record label, Poseidon Society. He invited me to record on two LPs, Saturn and Khaldis. The Poseidon recordings brought attention to his music from a larger community. Although he still had several recordings available, they were just an extremely small representation of his output. He was very passionate about these [Poseidon] recordings, and he showed it whenever a test pressing was available for review.
Naru was a master in the recording studio; she could hear anything because she had an excellent ear, while Alan used to supervise and offer suggestions. He didn't stop the proceedings often in the recording sessions because he was always on a limited budget, but if he had a comment he was not shy. For example, John Duffy, the founder of the Meet the Composer Foundation, told me that he saw Alan at a symposium at Town Hall in the Fifties, with people like Henry Cowell and John Cage in attendance, along with several other composers and New York critics on a panel discussion. After a critic made an incorrect statement about Alan's music, he jumped on the stage and took on the critic, showing his assertive side.
Another Hovhaness piece you were involved with, in a big way, was the viola concerto Talin.
Indeed. Jeffrey Kaufman — president of KemWest-Phoenix Records, based in New Jersey — and I were working with the composer-conductor Nicolas Flagello. Flagello, Kaufman and I were good friends, and they were recording, I think, 20 LPs for Peters International Records. And Jeffrey called me up in early September 1977 saying, "We have 20 LPs of music for the project, but we're short one side of the record. Would you like to record another concerto?", as I had already signed the contract to record three concerti.
Well, I had come across a score of Alan's Talin, a viola concerto published by AMP. I immediately called Alan and shared the fact that Brahms wrote his famous clarinet sonatas for the great clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, but also wrote alternate versions for viola and violin. I asked Alan if he would consider an alternate version of the viola concerto for clarinet, being that Brahms did it the opposite way, and he said "let me think about it." But he was also excited about the possibility of a recording of the work with the Rome Chamber Orchestra. The next day Alan called me up and said, "Larry, you only have to change one note in the entire concerto; it's as if it's written for clarinet." Within three days he sent me the clarinet part; the string parts were already in my posession. I went over [to Rome] the following week and we recorded it. All of the rehearsals were being recorded, and the musicians were so outstanding that the rehearsal takes ended up being the final version. The Italian musicians in Rome, Italy had never heard Hovhaness' music before, and they loved it. I remember them saying "con spirituale!" and "serpentante!"
I'll never forget the letter I received from Oliver Daniel who just loved the alternate version of Talin. He thought it sounded like it was written for clarinet. Subsequently, I performed Talin a few times with Dr. Leon Thompson, a director of educational activities for the New York Philharmonic and the assistant conductor. We performed it in New York and Louisville, and it was very well received. This recording was reissued on Citadel Records many years later.
Around 1973, Hovhaness parted company with his publisher CF Peters — what happened?
He was so prolific that they just couldn't publish all his compositions. I know that Alan visited CF Peters on Park Avenue South often. I once heard from a Peters employee that Alan was very fastidious about counting his inventory to see how many sales took place. I think that's what happens when you start your career as a composer living in extremely humble surroundings, with a meager income… though he certainly didn't have a meager income by the late 60s and 70s. He's been published by so many companies, even by an Israeli publisher. At this time, Alan wanted to have his latest compositions published more rapidly. I introduced him to Robert Bregman, then president of Alexander Broude music. Alexander Broude invited me to consult their contemporary music publications and subsequently I arranged for several composers to be published by them. They published several of Alan's works, including [the chamber piece] Firdausi.
And that's yet another piece you recorded, Firdausi, in the mid-70s?
Alan originally composed a film score for the Persian Empire exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During this period, Alan and I worked together very closely. Subsequently he reworked the music from the film score into a concert version and named it Firdausi. The most famous poet in Persia, Firdausi wrote the epic stories in the book entitled Book of Kings, The Shahnameh. I recorded it with two great artists: Gloria Agostini on harp and Neal Boyar on percussion. Firdausi was released on Richard Gilbert's label, Grenadilla Records.
Agostini was already associated with Hovhaness wasn't she?
Yes, Gloria performed with Hovhaness on CBS Television under conductor Alfredo Antonini with the CBS orchestra. In fact, O Lady Moon was written for Antonini's wife, Sandra, a well-known soprano, who used this work as an encore piece to Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock. Alan was very proud of the CBS performances under Antonini.
I can hardly fail to mention that you were the organiser of that major Hovhaness 80th birthday concert in New York?
Yes, that was the culminating concert, I guess, of his New York career. And it was the decision of the Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian to have Alan compose Symphony No. 65, Artsakh. Originally it was going to be called Nogorno-Karabakh but because of all the unrest in that area, the Archbishop asked that it be changed to "Artsakh". I said to the Archbishop it would be wonderful if there could be a commission by the Prelacy to honor Alan Hovhaness and all Armenians. After this meeting, the Archbishop and Alan corresponded and then Alan received a very generous commission from the Prelacy.
Also I asked Karel Husa, whom I'd known since 1970, to conduct Mysterious Mountain and Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Op. 128, while Alan conducted Psalm and Fugue, and of course, the world premiere of Artsakh. One of the highpoints of the event was the presentation of the Mesrob Mashdotz Medallion from His Holiness Karekin II, presented by Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian.
It was apparent that Alan was physically tired by the conclusion of the symphony — he was 80 years old — but his spiritual energy kicked in, to take him to even higher levels! [His wife] Hinako was amazing in the way she took care of him. She devoted herself to him during the 80th birthday celebration and through the last ten years of his life.
It was an amazing concert, but unfortunately there's no recording of the event. However, I found some footage from a friend of mine at NBC television who did some shooting for a news broadcast that showed Hovhaness conducting in a New York rehearsal studio. I have it on an archival videotape, and it includes interviews on Hovhaness' music with Richie Havens, Karel Husa and Archbishop Ashjian. And not only that, a friend of mine invited to the rehearsal, jazz legend Ornette Coleman, also did an interview with me about Hovhaness and his music
Maybe a year or two before his eightieth birthday, did you see that edition of the Wall Street Journal with a Hovhaness article on the cover page?
Well yes, I remember a friend pointing to a copy of the Wall Street Journal when I was walking on 57th Street. He raised the newspaper above his head and said "Alan Hovhaness is on the cover of today's Wall Street Journal!" Alan did have a great deal of respect as a commercially successful classical composer and the story was about him being one of the very few American classical composers earning $50,000 a year from royalties, commissions and everything. That was a large amount of income in the 1970s. It was around the time that Kostelanetz's recording of And God Created Great Whales had become a major seller, and any classical record that sold over 30,000 units was treated like a gold record. Alan had quite a few big-selling recordings. I remember that the Keith Jarrett recording of Lousadzak also sold very well. Keith Jarett stated "I feel a strong affinity with Hovhaness' music…probably because of the high respect and regard that we both have for the shape of melody being an all-important musical element."
Back then, the biggest seller of all may have been Fritz Reiner's stellar recording of Mysterious Mountain, on which Alan got the LP's A-side and Stravinsky's Fairy's Kiss the B-side; do you know what Stravinsky's reaction was?
Well, Alan told me that Stravinsky wasn't too happy being on the B-side of this Hovhaness [recording]. That was the decision of Fritz Reiner. It is interesting to note that Reiner became familiar with the composition after hearing Leopold Stokowski conduct the Houston Symphony on NBC's television show Omnibus.
Actually, Mysterious Mountain was shortlisted for a possible Stokowski recording on Capitol Records in late 1957, but by early '58 Reiner already had it in the bag.
I was not aware that Stokowski already was planning a recording with Capitol Records. Both Reiner and Stokowski deserve much credit for the soaring success of Mysterious Mountain. In addition, Claudia Cassidy, music critic for the Chicago Tribune and one of the most feared music critics in America, wrote a phenomenal review that is still referenced today.
Composing as he did, Hovhaness was an easy target for the critics, how did he deal with that?
He felt he was misunderstood, and as Nina Simone once sang: "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". Alan became very annoyed when it was stated that all his music sounded the same; that's when he felt the shallowness of some critics became apparent. Let's face it, you also hear this same comment at all-Bach and all-Mozart concerts, and when you're as prolific as Hovhaness, people can take shots at you. I remember there were about a dozen New York critics that came to his 80th birthday Carnegie Hall concert, and they gave him great reviews. As much as Alan seemed aloof about reading reviews, he loved a good one…who doesn't?
Any anecdotes you'd care to share, I'm sure there must be plenty?
I remember when I was in my early 20s walking on 7th Avenue with Alan and we stopped at the Carnegie Deli. He liked to order a large glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Later that evening, we passed the musicians' entrance to Carnegie Hall on 56th Street. The Boston Symphony had just finished their concert and I saw Harold Wright standing on the steps of the entranceway. Wright was the principal clarinetist of the symphony and my teacher-friend. I took this opportunity to introduce them to each other. It was very moving to see these wonderfully accomplished and sensitive men exchange handshakes. Harold knew of Saturn and complimented Alan on this beautiful composition. This brief encounter will live long in my memory.
On another occasion, we had lunch at The Russian Tea Room with Harry Beall, the successor to Arthur Judson of the powerful Arthur Judson Concert Management. Harry was a singer in his youth, and he just loved Alan's music. Here, he was in a position to get Alan some important engagements with major conductors and other artists on his roster. When Harry said to Alan "I'd like to get your music out to conductors" he replied (in a gentle manner) "my music will have its way of getting to conductors, if it's meant to be." So as hard as he worked for performances, when somebody offered him easy access to conductors, he wasn't comfortable with that either. Anyway, he did sign with Arthur Judson Management for several years, as a composer-lecturer with the Long Island Chamber Ensemble. Incidentally, another time at that same restaurant when only the two of us dined, Alan wrote the beginnings of a song for the waitress onto the menu, just because she treated us so nicely.
He would tell me little things here and there, and I just took it in. Alan and I drove to various concerts together. On one occasion, we were driving to a university in Connecticut that was sponsoring a two-day festival in honor of his music. During this trip, he asked me to listen a work for soprano and orchestra, Avak the Healer, and he leaned towards me and said, "This is one of my most beautiful works." Several years later, I conducted the work with Barbara Martin as soprano soloist.
Lawrence Sobol with Alan Hovhaness during rehearsals
(Photo: The New York Times)
Some commentators lazily stereotype him as an Armenian rather than Eastward-looking American composer, but did he really feel any allegiance?
He was proud of his Armenian heritage, and the Armenian community was very proud of him. In fact, in the 1940s, several conductors referred to him as "The young Armenian composer" including Stokowski. He was fond of the brilliant Armenian composer Gomidas Vartabed, who was a hero to Alan in the early part of his life, and he worked at the Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts as an organist, where he became familiar with the Armenian counterpoint and modal style. Many of his compositions of course have Armenian titles, including Ani, Talin, Artsakh, the Armenian Rhapsodies, etc.
Even so, he was once commissioned to compose a score for a tourism commercial or documentary for the country of Turkey, and he told me that some people in the Armenian community were very upset with him for taking the assignment. And he simply told me "I'm just a musician, I take work from wherever it comes." He was able to be this musical avatar and yet be very practical at the same time.
Whether influenced by Armenian music, Indian, Japanese or wherever, many famous musicians admired and propagated Hovhaness' music, didn't they?
Alan's decade of great prominence was the 50s. In the 60s his music certainly became overshadowed by a whole different group of composers. There was much help from Stokowski, Kostelanetz, Oliver Daniel, and Howard Hanson, president at the Eastman School, among others. Of course Eastman was where Alan taught Dominick Argento. The person most helpful was the legendary composer-critic Virgil Thompson of the New York Herald Tribune. Mr. Thompson invited me to his apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, and we subsequently spent several afternoons talking about Alan Hovhaness. He gave me a copy of the first review that he wrote of Alan's music that had been typed on one of those antique typewriters. In addition, he gave me an autographed copy of his composition Five Portraits for Four Clarinets.
Hovhaness was very excited that astronomer Carl Sagan chose his Vishnu Symphony to be included in the Cosmos television series. And for the episode which had his music, he made up his little cards advertising it, and he would put them up all over the place. He'd keep them in his jacket pocket and give them out to people…it was very sweet! He wanted you to share his music. Sagan said, "I have admired your music over the years and pleased we were able to include it in the Cosmos series and the new RCA record The Music of the Cosmos.
John Cage and Lou Harrison both admired Alan as an important voice in 20th century music. For the 80th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, Harrison gave me the following quote for the program: "Believing, as I do, that melody is the grace of music and the beauty of its work, I hold Alan Hovhaness in very high esteem, for he has the power of melody. For a long time he has gifted us with extraordinary singing — perhaps embroidered with counterpoint, or perhaps strummed along by simple chords, or even dramatized — but always singing."
On occasion, Alan spoke highly of Henry Cowell, who also appreciated Hovhaness' talents. In fact, Hovhaness substituted for Cowell as a teacher at the New School for Social Research. And Mose Allison, the great blues pianist and singer, is also an ardent fan of Hovhaness' music. On one occasion, circa 1971, I listened to the Saint Vartan Symphony with Mose in his music studio.
I also remember going with Alan to the American Composers Orchestra concert conducted by Dennis Russell Davies at Alice Tully Hall, back in 1981. Keith Jarrett performed Hovhaness' piano concerto Lousadzak which meant "Dawn of Light". It was the only concert of modern music that sold out that season. Of course the same forces then made a fine CD of Lousadzak.
There were rock star fans too; Carlos Santana did his own thing with Mysterious Mountain...
Yes, he recorded the track Transformation Day, based on a theme from Mysterious Mountain where he played the melody kind of in a Rock-Classical manner, and then went into a full rock version. This appears on the 1979 album Oneness. Santana's guitar solos just soar over his band with a ferocious intensity. It is interesting to note that two of the stars of the Woodstock Music and Art Festival (1969), Carlos Santana and Richie Havens, were avid fans of Alan Hovhaness. In fact, it was you, Marco, that introduced me to the Santana recording.
In addition, the brilliant Jaco Pastorius, pioneering jazz bassist of Weather Report fame, also did a jazzy reworking of Mysterious Mountain.
Several anecdotes there that I'd not previously heard. Many thanks for sharing your memories and insights. On behalf of a younger generation of Hovhaness admirers, I feel I should take this opportunity to thank you for your part not just in initiating several recordings of his works, but also in commissioning or otherwise helping to bring many of them into existence.
Well, it's strange when you look back over 40 years and you've been in the middle of the creative process: you're so focused on the work at hand, that it doesn't seem like a lot is getting done. However, now when I look back and think about Revelations of St. Paul, The Way of Jesus, Saturn, Firdausi, Talin and then the Ani and Artsakh symphonies, we actually accomplished quite a bit.
Agreed! Perhaps your humility has kept your name and long list of accomplishments for Hovhaness something of a well-kept secret from the composer's wider fan base, but I hope this interview will go some way in raising awareness of your huge contribution during Hovhaness' later career.
Well, it was one of the great privileges of my life to have spent many years knowing Alan Hovhaness and his music, and it's been a pleasure sharing this with you.
Thanks to Paul Michael Barkan for assistance with interview transcription.
Alan Hovhaness thanks the Long Island Chamber Ensemble musicians for their performance of Saturn.
Left to right: Lucy Shelton (soprano), Hovhaness, Peter Basquin (piano), and Lawrence Sobol (clarinet).