A Musical Trip to Armenia

      Ashot Zograbyan was the guest composer at a performance of Armenian music by Creo April 14, 2003 at Chandler Recital Hall. Mr. Zograbyan (b.1945) was invited to the stage at the conclusion of the concert where he commented that he was pleased to have his music heard in such a fine hall and performed with such a high level of accomplishment.

      Song was very much a part of the evening; mezzo Lisa Relaford Coston sang with power and clarity. When I asked the composer about Ms. Coston's performance he commented that she immediately grasped what he was asking for in his song. She did not have to work at it. "It is a gift that you are born with" he went on to say. "She is a natural singer with a very smooth delivery."

      Armenia is a rugged mountainous republic with 3.5 million people. About one third of the country's population lives in the capital, Yerevan, which is the home of the Komitas Conservatory. While a student at the conservatory Mr. Zograbyan wrote a number of chamber pieces for various instrumental combinations. Two of these pieces were on the program.

      Elegy "An den Knaben Elis" is a song for mezzo-soprano, cello, clarinet and piano with a text by German poet-symbolist Georg Trakl (1887-1914). Elis is a young boy who has died before the poem begins. In questioning the composer whether he sets words and phrases for meaning or "Do you strive for an overall mood?" He replied "I set every phrase for precise meaning of that phrase." The opening instrumental music of the piece is evocative of dark forests and blackbirds, both symbols of death. Even so this piece is not gloomy and when he sets the phrase "Yet with supple steps you traverse a night", "night" is set very sweetly. There is a warm easy acceptance of this major part of human existence. There is a section of loud, intense and exuberant music where the voice is treated as another instrument. The piece ends with a fine, thin cello note that fades away, expressive of the idea that our silence in death is "the final gold of a dying star." The excellent cellist was Sungzhin Peter Lee. See Issue #19 for more about the poet and his psychology.

      In Sonata for Cello and Piano (1977), Zograbyan's second piece, the cello is played by Tanya Anisimova with Andrey Kasparov at the piano. This piece in three main sections is typical of the composer. "It is an amalgam of Armenian folk elements and western contemporary music." The plaintive voice of the cello and the rather hollow sound of treble piano notes expressed deep pain. The ending came abruptly but gently and sadly. In conversation with the composer about the pain expressed in this music we were told that "Tanya Anisimova's interpretation lessened the pain expressed in the piece." It seems that my first question being about the "pain" established a connection that was palpable in the remainder of the interview.

      The brilliantly played piece Festive (1962) with Oksana Lutsyshyn and Andrey Kasparov on piano and David Walker on marimba and tambourine and Nicholas Bartolotta on snare drums opened the program. Composed by Alexander Arutunian (b. 1920) and Arno Babayanian (1921-1983) for two pianos and percussion , it is a very accessible fun piece, an organic, stylistic mix of folk elements, popular appeal and brilliant instrumental writing.

      Lisa Coston and Mr. Kasparov collaborated to bring us the American premiere of three songs by Tigran Mansurian, born in 1939 in Lebanon but raised in Yerevan where he studied music at the state conservatory. He is a prolific composer and many of his works are for voice. We heard Four Hayrens of Nahapet Kuchak. Kuchak is a 16th century Armenian poet. Hayrens are free-form poems consisting of four to fifteen verses. When I was born...and I was one of those birds brought out qualities of expression that I never heard before in Ms. Coston's voice. It is powerful music with elements of early chant, folk music and an absolutely stunning soaring line in the voice to the text of a bird soaring to avoid being drawn into "a love trap."

      In The Land of Nairi (Nairi is the ancient name for Armenia) the composer, using text by Vahan Terian (1885-1920), encapsulates the bloody, painful history of this ancient country conquered by Alexander the Great and then the Romans in 69 BC. Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as the state religion in AD 303. Later came the Mongols and the Ottoman Empire and finally the Russians promising religious tolerance. It has been a battle-ground in modern times over and over again. After the Soviet Union broke up Armenia became independent. Currently there is an uneasy ceasefire with neighboring Azerbajan over a territorial dispute. The song opens in a pensive mood, becomes a lament and concludes celebrating the will to survive of Nairi. Ms. Coston was marvelous in communicating all of this in a three minute song with Andrey Kasparov's support at the piano.


      Mr. Kasparov's Piano Sonata Number 1 was played by Ms. Lutsyshyn. This was our third hearing of this piece written by a very gifted 22 year old composer. See the review in Issue #21 as part of Lisa Coston's recital. To demonstrate the connection with Armenian music the sonata was preceded by Sarah Glosson playing an ud (Middle Eastern lute) in a religious piece by Nerses Shanorali (1101-1173) titled The Light of the Lord. The second movement opens using this melody which soon unfolds in a free strophic form using elements of free variations. In time the music skews off track, then more and more. Suddenly you find yourself in a new auditory landscape - there are familiar elements but only as fleeting glimpses.

      The third movement is very tactile. The physicality of the act of playing the piano dominated my attention. The quickly played treble notes in the right hand were punctuated by the powerful chords in the left. It is awe-inspiring to experience such brilliantly played music, so complex and so moving at the same time. Before the third movement Ms. Coston sang an Armenian hymn from which melodic material was used, I Cry for God's Mercy, by Mezrob Maslitotz (361-440 AD) a legendary monk, musician and poet. Maslitotz also invented the Armenian alphabet of 39 characters which is still used today. The third movement begins as the pianist stands and with the left hand dampens the bass strings and plays the bass keys with the right. The movement ends the same way. In between the technical demands are prodigious.

      After intermission the selection was Sun Gleams (1984) by Yarvand Yerkanyan (b.1951) for flute, piano, clarinet and cello with Dr. Kasparov conducting. This easily likable music removed from our space/time continuum created its own place in the universe. It gently draws you into this other dimension, this quiet place. The composer experiments in connecting contemporary musical structures with medieval Armenian music to create this very original mixture. The piece was dedicated to the composer Alicia Terzian (b.1934), an Argentinian of Armenian descent.

      Terzian was a guest composer with Creo last spring. David Walker played Ms. Terzian's Yágua ya yuca (1992) for a complex array of percussion instruments. This work was inspired by a ritual on the last Sunday of carnival in which Tiger defeats Bull. In this year's performance the opening sections emphasized the mystery of the events depicted, with much of the rage of last year's performance drained away. (Reviewed in Issue #11, Dec. 3, 2001). The percussionist recites "Bull that kills, Tiger that kills, Soul that runs and kills. Watch, Watch!" Very exciting music making by David Walker.

      Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) is Armenia's best known composer and "Saber Dance" from Gayaneh Ballet (1942) belongs to one of the best known works of the twentieth century. Andrey Kasparov arranged the piece for his ensemble and "danced" his way through the piece. The ensemble included three percussionists: Nicholas Bartolotta, Bryan Maurer and David Walker; F. Gerard Errante, clarinet; Natalia Kuznetsova, violin; Sungzhin Peter Lee, cello; Oksana Lutsyshyn, piano; Melissa Sinda, flute. The program ended most happily with this over the top showpiece with wonderful xylophone solo passages.


Piano Pyrotechnics at Ohef Sholom

      On March 30, 2003 Tamara Sanikidze, Oksana Lutsyshyn and Andrey Kasparov were the featured soloists for this piano extravaganza to inaugurate the Temple's new Steinway piano, a recent gift of the Sloan Foundation.

      At the elegant reception we visited with many musical friends, including Thibaut Del Giudice who was praising the music and musicians with passion and eloquence. Since he is a pianist (he studies with Ms. Lutsyshyn) he suggested we give it a great review in AU. Since we usually review only programs of song and feel unqualified to review piano programs, we asked him to review it for us. Thibaut is an officer and flyer in the French Navy, currently on assignment with the American Navy.

      I would like to mention two things. Howard Scott, who in the 1950's produced all the early piano recordings of Glenn Gould - including the landmark recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, was in the audience and was greatly impressed with Dr. Kasparov's performance of Mili Balakirev's (1837-1910) Islamy, Oriental Fantasy. "It is only the fourth time I have heard this piece played." He expressed great enthusiasm for the performance of this most difficult piece. Second, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky was a great influence on Debussy and Ravel. At the Paris World Exhibition of 1889 Ravel heard concerts of Russian music given by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Thibaut's Review

      What an incredible evening we had at the Ohef Sholom Temple with Andrey Kasparov, Oksana Lutsyshyn and Tamara Sanikidze! The program, entitled Piano Pyrotechnics truly represented the best of the Russian piano school and everyone stood amazed by such great composers and interpreters!

      The first piece, Sonata in E major by Haydn, was incredibly and beautifully played by Mr. Kasparov with all the lightness and clear sound required by such a classical piece. One could follow the whole structure of the piece as delineated by the interpreter who is also a composer.

      Two pieces by Ravel were played by Ms. Lutsyshyn: Une barque sur l'ocean, as well as Alborado del gracioso, from Miroirs. The pianist managed to show the impressionism present in these pieces through her inimitable touch of the keyboard. The colors were present and abundant in that gigantic picture!

      Ms. Sanikidze then impressed the audience with three pieces: Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in D, Debussy's Feux d'artifices (from Preludes Book II) and Liszt's very famous La Campanella. At that point the tone was already given to the audience, and one could wonder if any more virtuosity was possible. Ms Sanikidze not only played technically perfectly these very different pieces, but also put into each of them such a life! She is truly one of a kind.

      After the intermission Ms. Lutsyshyn came back with a wonderful Sonata #2 in two movements by Scriabin with a quite impressive presto movement which gave the public a picture of the Russian Impressionism as imagined by this wonderful composer, sometimes touching mysticism .

      The next piece played by Ms Sanikidze was the difficult Sonata in A major of Beethoven. This four movement sonata with a lot of contrasts and brillance is a real challenge for this pianist who dares to play with emotion and a perfect technique.

      Mr. Kasparov concluded the solo part with three amazing pieces. Two preludes of Rachmaninoff, G and G sharp minor, that he played with a lot of emotion and beauty, some of the most beautiful preludes of Rachmaninoff. He finished by playing the amazingly difficult Islamey of Balakirev. It is such a powerful piece that demands so much energy and concentration on the keyboard! In the end, people stood up. That was the final touch of the brilliant program.

      The three virtuosos then gave a humoristic end by playing altogether the Romance and Waltz from Rachmaninoff adapted for three pianists. They ended such a wonderful evening like a reverence. The public finally left incredibly happy to have such performers in our area.

      We hope to see them again soon.

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