Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem plays Armenian and Georgian music

“Between Ararat and the Caucasus”, a concert in the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s “Peoples’ Voices” series, was dedicated to classical- and traditional Armenian music, with works of Georgian-born composers. It featured conductor Aram Gharabekian (Armenia/USA) and mezzo soprano Anna Mayilyan (Armenia). This writer attended the concert in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre November 13th 2012. The event was held in cooperation with the 13th Jerusalem International Oud Festival.

Born in 1955 to Armenian parents, Aram Gharabekian moved to the USA at a young age, graduating from the New England Conservatory with a Master’s degree in Composition, then taking graduate studies in Musical Phenomenology at Mainz University (Germany). He studied conducting in Italy, later taking up a fellowship to study Conducting and Composition with Jacob Druckman and Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Music Center, Massachusetts. His conducting appointments have taken him to Boston, Zagreb, the Ukraine and his native Armenia; however, he conducts many orchestras, touring widely. Gharabekian has commissioned several works by American- and other composers. Committed to promoting music of our time, Maestro Gharabekian is, in addition, enriching the international concert scene by exposing the fine repertoire of traditional- and classical Armenian music.

The music of Armenia is one of the world’s most beautiful, most ancient and most overlooked traditions. The medieval songs of Armenia had their roots in both the sacred music of the Armenian Church and in the ancient traditions of the Caucasus region. Some of the major medieval Armenian composers were Khorenatsi, Narekatsi and Shnorali. Many older Armenian works exist today thanks to the tireless work of Komitas.  Born Soghomon Soghomonyan, Vartapet Komitas (1869-1935), taking the name “Komitas” on his ordination as a priest, was born in Turkey to Armenian parents who were both singers. He became a composer, choir leader, singer, music ethnologist, musicologist and pedagogue. Despite the fact that his output was modest – 80 choral works and songs, arrangements of the Armenian Mass and some dances for piano – he singlehandedly laid the foundations for Armenia’s classical tradition. He was a collector and arranger of folksongs, traveling from village to village, acutely aware of all the social implications of the repertoire. His settings used sophisticated polyphony.  He was also interested to rediscover the original reading of the neumes (musical notation) used in Armenian chants of the early middle ages. Komitas studied composition in Berlin, moving to Paris, there attracting large audiences to folk song recitals and becoming a musical celebrity in Europe. He also founded expatriate Armenian choirs in Alexandria and Constantinople. Although regarded as the musical voice of Armenia, he was in friction with traditionalists of the Armenian Church. While in Turkey, on an oral history project of the Armenian community in Turkey, Komitas was among 291 prominent figures arrested and taken in trucks to be imprisoned in the mountains. Although eventually reprieved, with the help of the American ambassador, he became ill with paranoia, spending his remaining 20 years in an asylum.

The concert opened with a song from the Komitas collection “Thou Stranger”. Performing the sensuous text, we heard Anna Mayliyan’s evocative and compelling voice, a reedy, mysteriously beautiful mix of chest- and head voice, above a most minimal use of percussion. From the Komitas collection, she also performed four songs by Khorenatsi, arranged by Ruben Altunian (b.1939, Yerevan), a composer with a deep knowledge of Armenian folk music, also an accomplished performer and educator. Referring to the songs as small gems would be no exaggeration. Mayliyan’s performance of each song was different; she incorporated hand movements as well as facial- and body language to convey meaning and to create each setting. In the dancelike “Shogher Jan”, she was coquettish and gregarious:
…‘Snow is beginning to appear beneath the clouds, dear Shogher
My heart is on fire,
Dear Shogher,
Sleep escapes from my eyes,
Dear Shogher,
Move with the wind, dance with the wind
Dear Shogher,
Snow is beginning to appear beneath the clouds,
Dear Shogher.’
In bell-like tones, Mayilyan holds her audience in the palm of her hand, her voice mellifluous and stable; her presentation is intense, theatrical, fired and endearing. Music and movement become one. We are transported to Armenia, to its landscape and to the soul of the people themselves:
‘Mount Alagyaz is shrouded in clouds,
Vay le, le, le, le, le, le. Le,
Rain has soaked the ground
Ah, my dear, sweet mother…’ (Komitas/Shnorhali/Muadian)

With “Surev Em Ter” (You Are the Holy Lord), a hymn of life and death, Mayliyan’s performance became intimate and devout, the orchestral setting not over-chordal. Anna Mayilyan, a professor in the classical vocal faculty of the Komitas State Conservatory, Yerevan, performs widely, focusing much on the music of her native Armenia. 

And to Komitas’ instrumental music - “Four Armenian Miniatures”, transcribed for orchestra by Sergei Aslamazian. These small pieces, wistful and hypnotic, at times lending themselves to distant reveries, at others, tinged with a hint of aching sadness, one piece free in spirit, light-hearted and exuberant, were given a polished performance. Maestro Aram Gharabekian’s conducting is elegant, expressive and unmannered. As a conductor, his total command of the orchestra is matched by his distinctive knowledge of- and immersion in Armenian music. One observes how comfortable he is working with the Camerata.

Maestro Gharabekian requested the concert be a tribute to two great Armenian composers who had recently died – Alexander Arutiunian and Edvard Mirzoian. Armenian composer and pianist Alexander Grigoriyevich Arutiunian (1920-2012) was a professor at the Yerevan State Conservatory. His creative style is based on the musical principles of Classical and Romantic styles but also on the musical heritage of Armenia, obvious in the use he makes of Armenian folk music. His focus on “vitalism”, as the elemental principle of art, is a method of recreating the nature of folklore melodies and rhythms, together with the art of interplay. His music abounds in lyricism, nostalgia and irony. Arutiunian’s “Sinfonietta” in four movements for string orchestra, composed in 1966, is characteristic of Armenian music written in the 1960s. In the neo-Classical style, the work’ bristles with sweeping national melodies, relentless syncopated rhythms and poignant, nostalgic moments. The Finale, with the whole orchestra coming into play, is peppered with dense motor rhythms.  Gharabekian and his players brought out the work’s singing melodies, sketching in its myriad of fine detail – small solos, whimsical comments and ostinati – to present its personal aspect, intertwined with Armenian expressiveness. Fine orchestral fare, indeed!

Edvard Mirzoian (1921-2012) was born in Georgia. Composing from age eight, he was initially educated in Yerevan, furthering his art in Moscow, later to become professor of composition at the Komitas State Conservatory. In 1958, he was raised to the status of an “Honored Artist of Russia”. We heard his tone poem “Shushanik”. “Shushanik” is a century-old legend concerning the creation of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia: King Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the forest. His falcon chased a pheasant. The bird fell into water, recovered and flew away. Surprised by the miraculous healing powers of the water, Vakhtang gave orders to build a city on this sight. Mirzoian composed the lyric tableau in 1973 for the Armenian film “Chaos”, which was based on Alexander Shirvanzadze’s book of the same name. With  oriental flavor added to western, neo-classical writing, the work is meditative, its filigree-fine, melancholy, caressing sounds building to a larger orchestral canvas. Gharabekian’s moving reading of the work, colored by concertmaster Arnold Kobliansky’s soloing, made for music of the senses.

The program also included a work by Joseph Bardanashvili (b.1948, Batumi, Georgia), a composer of stage-, film-orchestral-, chamber-, choral-, vocal and piano works. Bardanashvili’s works are performed widely; he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the ACUM Prize for life Achievement (2002). In Israel since 1995, he is the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s current composer in residence. In an article published by Dr. Uri Golomb for the Israel Music Institute (2006), Golomb talks of the composer referring to himself as a “conceptual composer”, using extra-musical sources – literary and visual – for inspiration, using materials “with diverse historical, geographical and stylistic resonances”. “Migrating Birds” for string orchestra was commissioned by the Ingolstadt Georgian Chamber Orchestra (Germany) in 2010.  The work endeavors to evoke the experience of migrating – that of the players of the Ingolstadt Orchestra, of the composer himself and, indeed, the emotional upheaval involved in moving to a new country. The basis of the work also lies in Georgia’s struggle with Soviet rule and the stages its society had undergone before reaching its eventual independence. The composer uses few motifs, those being rhythmic-, melodic- and intervallic ideas and folk idiom; he also quotes melodies from Yoel Engel’s “Dybbuk”. He acieves effects by using single strands of melody, some very high, followed by pauses, by clusters with tail-end echoes, by sudden jagged utterances, glissandi, etc., the work  ending with minute birdlike sounds, all integrated to create a disturbing sense of alienation. Reaching out to the ear, the music drew the audience into its tense-, at times almost transparent, otherworldly sphere. The composer, who is also a painter, speaks of the work as demanding “inner listening to discover lost- or non-existent sounds”. Joseph Bardanashvili was present at the performance.

How inspiring it was to experience this poetic and distinctive evening of music, most of it unfamiliar to local Israeli audiences. It was a pleasure to see a greater mix of people at the Henry Crown Hall; for those members of the local Armenian community present, it was surely an especially festive event. Maestro Gharabekian’s dedication and his precise, spirited and inspiring leadership was reflected in the beauty of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s performance throughout the evening. Anna Mayilyan’s artistry and musicianship reach far beyond the musical notes.

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