Various Artists

American Mystic: Music of Alan Hovhaness

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Hearing a collection of different pieces is a good way to get a grip on the music of American composer Alan Hovhaness. Taken in single doses his music can seem simplistic, but the key to understanding it is the fact that he truly did create a compositional world of his own. Once you start to set pieces against each other you notice the details, like the subtle variety of ways the percussion instruments can set off Hovhaness' basic modal counterpoint in the strings. The booklet to the centennial release makes the point that Hovhaness was for a time better appreciated in Asian countries than he was in the U.S., and one can see why: he drew techniques from the music of India, Korea, Japan, China, and Indonesia, in all of which he lived, yet he never was "Orientalist," and even when he directly refers to an external tradition, as in "Gamelan in Sosi Style," from the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 147, he does not imitate it. The compilers bookend the program with Hovhaness' two best-known works, Prayer of St. Gregory, Op. 62b, and the ubiquitous And God Created Great Whales, Op. 229/1, neither of them fully representative of Hovhaness' style (the prerecorded whale sounds and the aleatoric passages in the work are both exceptional in the composer's output). In between are some short works that present aspects of his music in individual chunks; The Flowering Peach, Op. 125, for alto saxophone, clarinet, harp, and percussion, consists of bits of incidental music for a play of the same name by Clifford Odets, and it shows how vividly illustrative Hovhaness' style can be. Many of the performances are superb. Gerard Schwarz's Seattle Symphony handles the not inconsiderable technical challenges of Hovhaness' orchestral music (quiet percussion patterns against perfectly smooth pianissimo strings), and best of all are members of the Ohio State University Concert Band under conductor Keith Brion in the jewel-like short movements of this work. Highly recommended as an introduction to Hovhaness or for anyone intrigued with this fascinating composer.

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