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Review: At 80, composer Tigran Mansurian finds the spiritual essence of Armenia

MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC | JAN 28, 2019 | 4:25 PM

Vatsche Barsoumian conducts a performance of Tigran Mansurian’s “Ars Poetica” on Sunday as part of a Dilijan Chamber Music Series tribute to the Armenian composer at Zipper Concert Hall in downtown L.A. (Silvia Razgova)

Sunday was Mozart’s birthday. It was also Édouard Lalo’s and Jerome Kern’s, as you might find in any “on this day in classical music” source. Neglected just about everywhere, though, was the fact that on Sunday the Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian turned 80.

Even so, Mansurian does have an international following for his spiritually riveting, exquisitely fabricated scores that link him stylistically with prominent Eastern European contemporaries such as Estonia’s Arvo Pärt, Poland’s late Henryk Górecki, Ukraine’s Valentin Silvestrov and Russia’s Sofia Gubaidulina and the late Alfred Schnittke. Mansurian, moreover, is championed by a number of prominent musicians, including violist Kim Kashkashian, pianist Alexei Lubimov and violinists Leonidas Kavakos and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, all of whom have made sterling recordings of his music mostly for ECM. Once you hear something by Mansurian you are not likely to forget it.

Yet the main (only?) birthday tribute Sunday was not in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, where Mansurian lives and is a celebrated cultural figure, but at the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall as part of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series presented by Glendale’s Lark Musical Society. The three-hour concert opened with a short video made for the occasion by Armenia’s president, Armen Sarkissian, praising the composer as the national treasure he is.

Dilijan, which features works by contemporary Armenian composers along with typically world-class performances of standard repertory chamber works, has been Mansurian Central from the start. Fifteen years ago, violinist Movses Pogossian and Mansurian mapped out the series at a Starbucks in Glendale, where the composer used to quietly spend part of the year composing far from the Yerevan limelight.

Quietly, indeed. Over the years Dilijan has been the main conduit for Mansurian’s music in the U.S., and it featured stellar performances, but it never attracted much attention outside of the large local Armenian community. Sunday’s full house was no exception, attracting little outside attention despite offering commanding performances from musicians like Kashkashian, Pogossian and Los Angeles Philharmonic principal clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan.

The program covered a fairly narrow, if exceptionally deep, swatch of Mansurian’s output, with works written between 1993 and 2006. They were all of intense poetic content, rapt in their relationship to the soul of Armenia and its music, dealing with matters of love, life and, especially, death. We feel, we suffer and then we die, these works seemed to suggest, so how do we make our short existence matter?

It would, nonetheless, be a mistake to get too wrapped up in the monastic side of Mansurian. For all of his spiritual intensity, he achieved his mature voice the hard way, and he has always been of many sides.

That late voice, the one Mansurian is known for, strives for a purity of sound and expression based on elements of traditional Armenian melody and the country’s traditional and liturgical music, its language and poetry, to say nothing of its landscape. But under it all is a highly cosmopolitan composer.

Early on Mansurian participated in the post-World War II European avant-garde. He wrote film music including the soundtrack for the dazzling 1969 Soviet art film classic “The Color of Pomegranates” and, of all things, a much later L.A. police thriller, “Camera Obscura.”

The earliest piece on Sunday’s program was Mansurian’s agitated String Quartet No. 3, a musical letter written in 1993 during Armenia’s struggle for independence. Rather than escaping into spiritual grace, Mansurian pulls Armenian melody apart with dark, mournful dissonant counterpoint, a startlingly vivid description of what was happening to his country.

The biggest piece was “Ars Poetica,” an hour-long a cappella choral setting of 10 poems by Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents. There are songs of sleepless night and its terrors; enchanting odes to the feminine, be that Mother Mary or Manon Lescaut; doleful songs of autumn, dramatizing the inevitable; and a long epilogue in which the poet imagines how he will be remembered, if he is remembered at all.

Mansurian makes these sentiments stick, gripping us in our fears and desires, and the Lark Master Singers, led with arresting physical immediacy by Vatsche Barsoumian, added an extra shot of raw vitality. This is a volunteer chorus able to enter fully inside the score with an immediacy that makes a professionally polished ECM recording feel a little tame in comparison.

“Ars Poetica” was finished in 2000, and the “Three Medieval Taghs” for viola and percussion and the clarinet quartet “Agnus Dei” followed over the next six years. This is the kind of music for which Mansurian is best known. Through melody of condensed expression, every tiny gesture resonates as it lingers with a sense of timelessness in the air.

Mansurian gives the impression here of not so much overcoming anguish (let alone transcending it) as accepting and absorbing the pain of loss. He evokes spiritual pain to remind us what it means to be alive, to feel closer to our bodies and being.

When Allakhverdyan’s clarinet floated, barely heard, in “Agnus Dei,” it became the listener’s job to try to hang on to the life of sound waves. When Kashkashian’s viola and the metallic percussion seemed to cry for all the sorrow in “Tagh for the Funeral of Our Lord,” there was a sense that this elegy is supposed to go on forever, lest we ever forget to value each breath.

There was, thus, much sadness on this birthday. But there was also the happy alternative when at the end, Barsoumian conducted the audience in a Mansurian ode to the “sun-zested fruit of sweet Armenia.” Although typically plaintive, this patriotic “Hymn to Armenia” was honeyed by a composer who knows far better than most the value sweetness and zest.

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Review: Dilijan Chamber Series Mansurian Birthday Concert

February 6, 2019 | By Nestor Castiglione | Category: Classical Music and Opera

Vatsche Barsoumian conducts the Lark Geghart Choir in Mansurian’s Ars Poetica. / Photo credit: Néstor Castiglione

In a recent interview, Tigran Mansurian said he considered himself a musical “grandson” of Dmitri Shostakovich, the doyen of Soviet composers during the mid-20th century. As with his friends and colleagues Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt, Andrei Volkonsky and Edison Denisov, among others who stood at the head of the post-Shostakovich avant-garde in the former Soviet Union, Mansurian’s music bears the imprint of the elder composer’s art. Yet each of these artists, unlike earlier generations of Soviet composers, managed to absorb his influence without becoming his epigones.

Dilijan Chamber Series demonstrated this with their typical blend of eloquence and verve last Sunday afternoon in their 80th birthday tribute to the composer. Assembling a program of scores which spanned the period since Armenia’s independence, the concert was not only a tribute to the life and work of one of the most eminent composers alive today, but also an exhibition of how the composer developed his mature idiom by way of embracing the musical roots of his homeland.

Shunning the brilliant exoticism of the “folklorist” style that held sway over the various Soviet republics, Mansurian instead made Komitas Vardapet, as well as Armenian liturgical and folk music the keystone of his art. It is this quality which imbues it, however dark the depths it may plumb, with the enduring light of hope and acceptance.

His poignant Agnus Dei from 2006 serves as a case in point. Composed of three movements which each have a single melodic line broken up amongst clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the score floats overhead ethereally, poised delicately between this world and the hereafter. The grouping of clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan, violinist Movses Pogossian, cellist Michael Kaufman and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert left one’s breath practically suspended for the duration of the performance. Only a few composers alive today can match Mansurian’s unerring ear for diaphanous timbral combinations that are both moving and seductive. None surpass him.

The broad palette of tone colors he is able to wield employing only viola and vibraphone in his Three Medieval Taghs, which Kim Kashkashian and Jonathan Hepfer played with a naturalness as if the music had been spontaneously improvised, are a veritable textbook for younger composers to draw inspiration from. Mansurian here displayed his mastery of gesture, an economy of expression that has no place for artifice.

His wiry String Quartet No. 3 from 1993, the earliest of his scores on the program, stands athwart a watershed in the life of the composer and his people, having been composed shortly after Armenia’s independence. Broken shards of folk-like motifs bare the glint of their edges at the listener, occasionally being smoothed out by moments of repose that look forward to Mansurian’s later style.

But it was his choral masterpiece Ars Poetica, which the Lark Geghart Choir under Vatsche Barsoumian dispatched with unsettling intensity, that most powerfully seared itself into the listener. A weighty rumination on the passing of time and inevitable death, on the transience and beauty of life itself, Mansurian’s music fuses into the verses by Yegishe Charents that it sets into an organic whole. Here composer and poet become extensions of each other, threaded by a cosmic filament spanning the chasm of time, which they both extend to the listener, inviting them into their artistic communion.

There is a strong sense of the stoic in this mighty score, which recalls the words of Seneca: “Study death always.” Yet upon entering the world of Ars Poetica, listeners may find themselves disarmed by the austere gracefulness with which these matters are addressed.

Perhaps it is here where the divide between Shostakovich and Mansurian most explicitly manifests itself. In the elder composer, death arrives as an interloper, the most despised of enemies. While no friend, Mansurian understands that death is but another character on the stage of life, a natural entity which one must accept.

Yet there remain things which even death cannot touch. These scores, simultaneously ancient and contemporary, will have earned themselves and their creator a well-deserved immortality.

—Néstor Castiglione, Culture Spot LA