A sonata for harp and guitar, “The Spirit of the Trees,” has long been on my cd shelf. This recording by Yolanda Kondonassi on harp and David Leisner on guitar is the only release of which I’m aware.
Reviewer Steve Schwartz, writing for Classical Net Review, gives some insight:
Essentially, the harp hasn’t changed its essential character in thousands of years. It is still … not a chromatic instrument, and since at least Wagner, music sings mainly chromatically. You can’t do a quick chromatic scale on the harp. You can’t create a chord for it with three pitches each a half-step (or a major seventh or minor ninth, for that matter) apart. Hovhaness’ finds a radical solution – literally “radical,” since it goes back to the roots of the instrument. He makes the harp sing modally (mainly Dorian and Phrygian, for those keeping score), although he continually changes the modes. He confines chromatics mainly to slow, even turtle-slow passages. The emotional affect of the piece is odd, a piece “out of all time.” It’s modern and ancient at once. You can imagine it coming from under the hill.
When a composer is communicating something of the essence of trees, I think that fits. Those plants are both old and new, a balance of wood building annually on itself, and each year, new leaves and flowers spring into view. To the untrained eye, the flowers fade and the leaves fall. But they have accomplished their task: nourishing the old and contributing new growth inside. The modern sustains and refreshes the ancient.