Mu­si­cal Des­ti­na­tions

Oliver Condy heads to Yere­van, Ar­me­nia

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

Take a dawn stroll to the north of Yere­van and gaze out over the city, and you’ll be re­warded with a clear view of Mount Ararat, its sum­mit golden in the ris­ing sun. Fa­mous for be­ing the fi­nal rest­ing place of Noah’s Ark, Ararat is a po­tent Ar­me­nian sym­bol and fea­tures, with the Ark, in the coun­try’s coat of arms. Ex­cept that the moun­tain is in east­ern Tur­key, a re­minder of Ar­me­nia’s dark­est hour: Turk­ish atroc­i­ties that saw the tor­ture and mur­der from 1915 of over 1.5 mil­lion Ar­me­ni­ans and the dra­matic re­duc­tion of the coun­try’s ge­o­graph­i­cal size – events that are barely talked about to­day out­side Ar­me­nia.

The Ar­me­nian Geno­cide Me­mo­rial and Mu­seum a few miles away from the city cen­tre is an up­set­ting but nec­es­sary visit, and a sym­bol of Ar­me­nia’s for­ti­tude and de­ter­mi­na­tion in the face of ad­ver­sity. De­spite the rav­ages of the Geno­cide and the sub­se­quent loss of so much of its for­mer land to Tur­key (plus an on-go­ing war with neigh­bour­ing Azer­bai­jan), plus Com­mu­nism’s cultural de­struc­tion and dev­as­tat­ing earth­quakes in­clud­ing one in 1988 that killed 25,000, Ar­me­nia grips tightly to its iden­tity and tra­di­tions.

In fact, one of the best spots to see Ararat is from the Mate­nadaran, a col­lec­tion of over 2,500 Ar­me­nian manuscripts in­clud­ing the 10th-cen­tury Ech­mi­adzin Gospels and 13th-cen­tury calf-skin ★om­i­lies of Mush dis­cov­ered dur­ing the Geno­cide in an aban­doned monastery. Both books are price­less in Ar­me­nian

eyes – the coun­try was the first to adopt Chris­tian­ity as its na­tional re­li­gion, dot­ting the land­scape from the early fourth cen­tury with beau­ti­ful monas­ter­ies com­plete with dis­tinc­tive round tow­ers. Geghard, an hour from Yere­van, is per­haps the finest ex­am­ple, dat­ing from the 300s. Built to house the spear that pierced Christ’s side, much of it was carved into the hill­side rock, its vaulted, dimly-lit cham­bers lined with elab­o­rate carv­ings.

Yere­van it­self is a beau­ti­ful city. Much of it bears the scars of 20th-cen­tury

Soviet rule, but around each corner are ar­chi­tec­tural riches: a tiny 12th-cen­tury chapel with an­cient graf­fiti; grand 19th-cen­tury shops fronts (many sell­ing fine Ar­me­nian car­pets) and ten­e­ment build­ings; wide boule­vards and mod­ern blocks that hark back to pre-com­mu­nist Yere­van with their Ar­me­nian dec­o­ra­tions and use of the lo­cal pink vol­canic stone that blushes at dusk.

★alfway up Mar­shal Baghramyan Av­enue, in among the in­ter­na­tional em­bassies and con­sulates, is the 19th-cen­tury house that Ar­me­nian-soviet com­poser Aram Khacha­turian would stay in when­ever he passed through Yere­van – its ad­join­ing mu­seum houses manuscripts, let­ters and mem­o­ra­bilia. Al­though born in Ge­or­gia, Khacha­turian took a life-long in­ter­est in tra­di­tional Ar­me­nian mu­sic and was em­ployed by the Sovi­ets to pro­mote and de­velop it, which he did us­ing the Cau­casian folk mu­sic re­mem­bered from his child­hood.

Khacha­turian is buried in Komi­tas

Park and Pan­theon among other no­table Ar­me­ni­ans, next to the Komi­tas Mu­se­u­min­sti­tute, both named af­ter Ar­me­nia’s most im­por­tant mu­si­cal son – a ma­jor in­spi­ra­tion for Khacha­turian’s work. Komi­tas Var­dapet (real name Soghomon Soghomo­nian – see box, right) is some­thing of a cultural god from whom all Ar­me­nian mu­sic has since flowed. Eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist, com­poser, ar­ranger, singer, choir­mas­ter and more, Komi­tas es­tab­lished the foun­da­tion for Ar­me­nia’s na­tional mu­si­cal iden­tity (there were 275 mu­sic schools in Ar­me­nia in the mid-20th cen­tury), one that could feed and wa­ter its roots but could stride for­ward and stamp its iden­tity within the flour­ish­ing Euro­pean or­ches­tral scene. And so com­posers such as Ter­t­e­rian, Ari­tiu­nian and, lat­terly, Ti­gran Mansurian have kept the Ar­me­nian flag fly­ing while pre­serv­ing a valu­able folk tra­di­tion.

★elp­ing keep this mu­sic alive is the dy­namic young con­duc­tor Sergei Sm­bat­yan, a grad­u­ate of the Moscow Con­ser­va­toire and Lon­don’s Royal Academy of Mu­sic. Sm­bat­yan founded the State Youth Orches­tra of Ar­me­nia in 2005

Komi­tas is a cultural god from whom all Ar­me­nian mu­sic has since flowed

which, in 2015, was for­mally recog­nised by for­mer pres­i­dent Serzh Sargsyan as the Ar­me­nian State Sym­phony Orches­tra for its pro­mo­tion across Europe of Ar­me­nian mu­sic. ‘Our per­for­mance in ★am­burg of mu­sic by Ar­me­nian com­posers re­ceived stand­ing ova­tions,’ Sm­bat­yan proudly tells me. But he also en­sures that in­ter­na­tional mu­si­cians are in­vited to per­form in Yere­vam it­self. ‘The Vi­enna and Is­rael Phil­har­mon­ics were here two years ago, and now the top soloists are now putting Yere­van in their cal­en­dar,’ he adds. ‘Peo­ple hear about Ar­me­nia’s prob­lems, but then they come to our coun­try and hear our state orches­tra play­ing at the high­est stan­dard. It makes a huge im­pres­sion. Ar­me­nia can’t be a leader on the world stage, but when you have mu­si­cal tal­ent, it can make a dif­fer­ence.’

Yere­van’s re­cent cel­e­bra­tion of Pol­ish-ar­me­nian com­poser Pen­derecki took au­di­ences to all the city’s venues, in­clud­ing Komi­tas ★all, an acous­ti­cally warm bru­tal­ist build­ing, and, right in the mid­dle of Yere­van, the huge opera theatre hous­ing two ma­jor au­di­to­ri­ums: the Aram Khacha­turian ★all that seats 1,400 and the 1,200-seat Alexan­der Spen­di­aryan Opera and Bal­let Na­tional Theatre. ‘Our venues are fan­tas­tic,’ says Sm­bat­yan, ‘but we have so much more to of­fer than they can ac­com­mo­date.’ The newly ap­pointed Ar­me­nian pres­i­dent should take note…

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion:

Visit arm­sym­phony.am for more on the Ar­me­nian State Sym­phony Orches­tra

Ar­me­nian sym­bols: a view of Mount Ararat look­ing over Yere­van; (be­low) con­duc­tor Sergei Sm­bat­yan

Rock of ages: the as­ton­ish­ing Geghard Monastery

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