Oliver Condy heads to Yerevan, Armenia
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…
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