Dilijan in the Press

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

 

Review: Dilijan Chamber Music at Zipper Hall

December 17, 2018 | By Nestor Castiglione | Category: Classical Music and OperaFeatured Articles

Dilijan musicians gather for performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet Dec. 16 at Zipper Hall. Clockwise from top left: Martin Beaver, Eva Aronian, Paul Coletti, Clive Greensmith, Edvard Pogossian, Cara Pogossian, Varty Manouelian, Movses Pogossian / Photo by Néstor Castiglione

A chill breeze set in late Sunday afternoon in Downtown Los Angeles, wafting through the skyscrapers, and setting trees swaying with a rustling that was a harbinger of the winter that will arrive in a matter of days. Its bite was already felt at the tips of one’s fingers, in the hollow of one’s cheeks. So what a relief to duck into the Colburn School of Music’s Zipper Hall as the sun silently vanished over the horizon, where Dilijan Chamber Music presented a program and music-making that greeted the audience like the welcoming glow of a warm hearth.

Dilijan distinguishes itself not only for the excellence of its players, but also for its exploration of Armenia’s rich contribution to classical music, as well as its intelligently assembled programs. Last Sunday was no different, with a first half that delineated the contrasts and complex web of mutual influences that criss-crossed the artistic paths of Mieczysław Weinberg, Aram Khachaturian and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Weinberg, the youngest of the three, has seen his reputation climb in recent years, a phenomenon that began shortly before the composer died in semi-obscurity in 1996. Listening to his 1942 Aria for string quartet, Op. 9which opened the program, one is tempted to dismiss him as a Shostakovich epigone who modeled his score much too obviously on the slow movements of the elder composer’s Second and Fourth String Quartets — until one realizes that Weinberg’s work was penned years before either. The student, as it turned out, exercised a considerable influence on the master. In this youthful work one can already hear not only the stirrings of his own original voice, but also the foreshadowings of tendencies which Shostakovich would later absorb into his own art and make his own. The performance by Movses Pogossian (first violin), Martin Beaver (second violin), Paul Coletti (viola) and Clive Greensmith (cello) sweetly daubed the corners of the music, playing up its dewiness without sacrificing control.

Those seeds intimated in the Weinberg would be tellingly demonstrated 22 years later in the older composer’s Tenth String Quartet, with Shostakovich now returning the favor to Weinberg by way of a dedication: a rare tribute as much a mark of respect for the younger man’s craft as it was for his friendship.

Shostakovich’s quartet is a transitional one, looking back to the neo-Mussorgskian style that marked many of his works from the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as forward to the austerity of his late music. In some respects it is a wayward curiosity, more interesting for what it portends rather than for its intrinsic qualities. Nonetheless, the quartet composed of Varty Manouelian (first violin), Eva Aronian (second violin), Cara Pogossian (viola) and Edvard Pogossian (cello) made an eloquent case for this poker-faced opus, playing it straight and letting the listeners decide for themselves whether the wan face it presents is a smirk or a frown.

Shostakovich’s influence, in turn, can be discerned in the work by another close friend and musical colleague, Khachaturian’s late Sonata-Monologue for solo violin, part of a cycle of works he composed in his final years. The declamatory power and occasional tapping on the lower bout of the instrument tip the hat to Shostakovich, but the bardic lyricism at the heart of the music is pure Khachaturian. Making her debut with Dilijan, as well as performing the score’s Los Angeles premiere, was violinist Eva Aronian whose performance was a veritable how-to in balancing emotional weight and technical virtuosity. She boldly cut her way through this melancholy, sometimes despairing music, while simultaneously illuminating the textures with utmost fidelity, conveying the music’s power with a persuasiveness matched by few and surpassed by none.

The second half of the program reunited all the players in a spirited burst through the original version of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings. For those only familiar with the much better known revised version of this eternally fresh score, a few surprises lay in store. But what was no surprise was the precision, color and joyous swing of this Dilijan performance. It was of a piece with the atmosphere this chamber series typically cultivates.

The barriers usually confining composer, musicians and audiences into separate spaces are dissolved at Dilijan. Instead, they are all threaded together in an atmosphere both inviting and familial that leaves one feeling, as nowhere else, that the realm of great music is everyone’s home.

—Néstor Castiglione, Culture Spot LA

For complete review, please see  http://culturespotla.com/2018/12/dilijan-chamber-music-at-zipper-hall/

Los Angeles Times

January 14, 2014

Tigran Mansurian’s music is refined and sensual. But Dilijan Chamber Music divulges there is a feisty rebelliousness beneath the surface.

Dilijan Chamber reveals Tigran Mansurian’s rebel side

By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Mansurian

Composer Tigran Mansurian watches as musicians perform his music during the Dilijan Chamber Music series’ “Celebrating.”
(Christina House / For The Times / January 12, 2014)

The stately, spiritual music of Tigran Mansurian has an underlying sadness. But the surfaces remain unflappable, surprisingly fleshy and incredibly beautiful. It is music that doesn’t so much transcend suffering as absorb it, become one with it.

Luxuriant sensuality as spiritual balm is his secret weapon and no doubt what has made the Armenian composer, who turns 75 later this month, a stellar international figure.

Sunday afternoon, though, Dilijan Chamber Music divulged a different secret weapon during its Mansurian celebration at the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall. Underlying the sensuality and deeper even than the sadness is a feisty rebelliousness.

For a tribute concert, the program was a little strange. Of the six short Mansurian chamber works (all under 10 minutes), four were from his formative years as an Armenian living under Soviet rule. The other two were recent solos for clarinet and viola. There was little hint of the luminous large-scale scores of his maturity, on which his reputation rests.

But given that Mansurian, who was on hand at Zipper and who clearly had a hand in selecting the program, has been a guiding force in Dilijan from the beginning, this was the intention. In remarks from the stage, Dilijan music director Movses Pogossian reminded the audience that in the last eight years, the series has performed no less than 76 pieces by Mansurian. UCLA, moreover, will offer a Mansurian tribute on Jan. 26, which further fills in the gap.

Dilijan, instead, offered clues to how Mansurian came to create a style grounded on Armenian tradition yet internationally cosmopolitan, at once folk-based and revolutionary. Bartók, who did just that with Hungarian music, was an obvious model, and Mansurian’s earliest piece of the afternoon, Allegro Barbaro for violin and piano, took its inspiration from Bartók’s piano solo of that title.

At a time when accessible social realism was demanded of Soviet composers, Mansurian’s brutish percussive Modernism was bold for a 25-year-old in 1964. Bolder still was Mansurian’s 1966 Schoenbergian Second Violin Sonata, the first 12-tone Armenian piece.

How did Mansurian get away with it? The third weapon in his secret arsenal was sophisticated refinement. The boldness was in the technique, but the actual impression made by these pieces — to which Pogossian and pianist Mark Robson brought a commanding focus and intensity — is that of a fastidious attention to harmonic detail and a singing quality to Mansurian’s melodies that no brutality can undercut (yet a fourth secret weapon).

Within the next few years Mansurian became increasingly avant-garde but also more nationalistic, incorporating traditional Armenian modes and melodies. He also became increasingly adept at covering his radical tracks by applying rigorous structure to override sentimentality.

Madrigal No. 1 — a setting of a tenderly morose Armenian text for soprano flute, cello and piano — and the chamber score “Tovem” were the works Sunday from the 1970s. In both, a vocal line or flute solo might have a sinuously melismatic Armenian flavor yet be constructed from rigorously mathematical principles.

Here, a listener might still be aware of two worlds in opposition. In the new pieces, those worlds became one. Armenian clarinetists commonly play the folk instrument, the duduk (or gralnet) on the side. In Mansurian’s 2011 clarinet solo, “Parable,” the composer narrows in on the common language between the two instruments.

For “Lotos,” a 2012 viola solo, Mansurian’s fascination was with the molecular structure of the lotus flower, which repels dust. Using an Armenian modal structure, he came up with yet another musical parable. The fleshy purity of Mansurian’s viola writing is such that a writer has little hope of attaching an evocative description that will do it justice.

A few more hints at Mansurian’s evolution were also offered Sunday, with works by two of his Armenian precursors. Three songs by Romanos Melikian from early last century were exotically tinged. The Lebanese Armenian Boghos Gelalian’s “Sept Sequences,” (written in the mid-1960s and possibly a world premiere) had a Middle Eastern Stravinsky/Varèse character and sounded like something Alfred Hitchcock might have wanted as a soundtrack for a mystery set in Beirut.

Dilijan made its own contribution to an afternoon of secret weaponry — uniformly terrific performances. The lineup included soprano Shoushik Barsoumian, clarinetist Phil O’Connor, violist Robert Brophy, cellist Antonio Lysy and conductor Vatsche Barsoumian.

mark.swed@latimes.com

November 15, 2012

Dilijan serves up music by Khachaturian, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn

By Ted Ayala

At the opening: A composer best known for his panoramic orchestral frescoes distilling a lifetime’s experience into a deeply introspective and austere solo instrumental work. At the close: An uncharacteristically tragic work from a composer whose music often stands as some of the most joyful ever composed. Composers at the extremes—of life as well as their art—stood on either side of last Sunday’s Dilijan Chamber Series concert at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. The program, especially its outer sections, was a study of art transcending pain; of the cathartic and ultimately life-affirming power of music.

Though famous for splashy works like the “Sabre Dance” from Gayaneh and the ballet Spartacus, Aram Khachaturian’s late Sonata-Fantasy for Solo Cello came from an altogether different world. Spare in gesture and dour in outlook, it ranks with the late work of his friend and colleague Dmitri Shostakovich. Shaped into a single movement that weaves together influences from Armenian folk and liturgical music, the work is a fascinating look into lesser explored facets of this composer. Cellist Antonio Lysy brought to the work judicious restraint coupled with faultless technical polish that further clarified the work’s structure and writing. His was a quietly intense reading that focused the attention on the composer—and rendered the work all the more expressive.

Standing at the program’s end was Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, op. 80. Composed in the weeks following the death of his sister—and soon to be followed by the composer’s own untimely demise—the quartet has a tragic cast leavened at times with a Schubertian bittersweetness. The performance by the quartet of Dilijan musicians, comprising of Varty Manouelian (1st violin), Movses Pogossian (2nd violin), Paul Coletti (viola), and Lysy, placed the work in context with the late quartets of Beethoven and Schubert. Any notion of Mendelssohn as a “minor master” or second-rate composer was dispelled by their lucid, razor-sharp interpretation. Their reading of the finale had a harrowing power that seemed to forecast the work of Alkan and Mahler. A magnificent performance.

Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in C for Violin and Piano and Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op. 73 stood at the center of the program like the calm eye of a musical storm.

Violinist Pogossian brought a welcome Viennese warmth to the Schubert piece; his cherubic tone navigating sensitively between the music’s alternating moods of joy and melancholy. In the Schumann piece, Coletti, performing the work in an arrangement of his own devising, played with winsome expressivity that was fully attuned to Schumann’s dreamy character.

Accompanying in both works was pianist Neal Stulberg who was a splendid partner to both. In both works he displayed a keen understanding of the instrumental interplay, while in his solo moments allowing his pearlescent tone to shine through.

An intelligent approach to programming and probing performances are easier said than done. But Dilijan makes it seem deceptively easy. Amidst all the bad news in the past few years of doznes of artistic institutions shuttering, Dilijan stands out as that rare success story. One that will hopefully continue to enrich Southern California in the years to come.

October 4, 2012

Dilijan Opens Season with Music of France

By Ted Ayala

Photo: From bottom left to upper right: Richard Yongjae O’Neill, Ronald Leonard, Guillaume Sutre, Varty Manouelian, and Judith Gordon taking a bow at Dilijan Chamber Series’ opening concert of its 2012-13 season.

For local lovers of French chamber music, this last year has proven to be a feast for the ears. Lark Musical Society’s Dilijan Chamber Series continued the buffet with their own foray into French music on Sunday at Zipper Hall in Downtown Los Angeles with a distinctive program that focused on lesser-known works from France.

Bookending the program were works by Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré, each one in its way breaking the popular stereotype of these composers.

Where Saint-Saëns is sometimes remembered as a fusty reactionary in his gray years, his late “Fantasy in A for Violin and Harp” was evidence that the composer was capable of tapping into a vein of perfumed sensuality not unlike the kind associated with his friend and colleague Fauré. The normally buttoned-down composer waxed rhapsodic in the luscious treatment given the music by violinist Guillaume Sutre and his wife, harpist Kyunghee Kim-Sutre.

At the opposing end was Fauré’s austere “Piano Quintet No. 2.” France is recognized for the lightness of its art, its opposition to Teutonic weight. But Fauré’s late chamber work proved that it was possible to merge refinement and clarity with a sense of emotional depth that remains uniquely French.

Dilijan also gave a nod to Armenia’s rich contribution to the French muse by way of the “Sonata for Violin and Piano” by Turkish-Armenian composer Edgar Manas. The music’s French roots – it was composed while the composer was living in Paris – were apparent enough. But it also was spiced with Scrabinesque chromaticism and a nervous energy that had a Slavic twist. Violinist Movses Pogossian and pianist Judith Gordon made a compelling case for the work, highlighting the hothouse intensity and cosmopolitan flavor of the music.

The performance by Dilijan chamber members – Varty Manouelian and Guillaume Sutre (violins), Richard Yongjae O’Neill (viola), Ronald Leonard (cello), and Judith Gordon – in the Fauré work was equally inspired. The music, though produced by a composer whose outlook grew disenchanted with the passing of the years, nevertheless laid bare the strength at the music – and composer’s – soul. It also brought to relief elements, especially in the third movement, that Shostakovich would employ in his own “Piano Quintet.”

Debussy’s “Sacred Dance and Profane Dance” for harp and strings followed the Saint-Saëns. It was a rich, earthy performance, as different – and as valid – as Southwest Chamber Music’s airy performance of the same work over the summer. Especially winning were the vibrancy of Kim-Sutre’s musicianship on her instrument and the languid sensuality of the strings.

April 17, 2011

If further confirmation were needed that southern California is in the midst of a chamber music renaissance, then add the Dilijan series at Zipper Hall to the list.

Martinu, Komitas, Mansurian, and Bartok at Dilijan Concert at Zipper Hall

By Ted Ayala

If further confirmation were needed that southern California is in the midst of a chamber music renaissance, then add the Dilijan series at Zipper Hall to the list. Dilijan, which was created by violinist Movses Pogossian and serves as the series’ artistic director, strives to not only bring great chamber music to audiences, but to highlight the richness of Armenian culture.

That aspect of Dilijan was front-and-center in the middle part of its recent program at Zipper Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

The folklore of Armenia was recalled in the selections from the “Six Dances for Piano” by Vardapet Komitas and played with a lively rhythmic sense by Vicky Ray. Subtle syncopations, spare textures, and gently mordant harmonies gave this set of piano pieces a decidedly modern cast that belied its 1902 vintage. Often the parts are reduced to bare octaves, or even down to a single line, pointing the way to the “monodia” that serves as the inspiration of the music of a later Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian.

Mansurian delivered in his portion of the program the world premiere of his new version of the song cycle “Canti Paralleli.” Originally comprised of three pairs of songs set to words by Armenian poets Baghdasar Dpir, Eghishe Charents, and Avetik Isahakian, Mansurian chose to expand his work with one more pair of songs on words by Vahan Terian. The result was an undoubted masterwork. Richly expressive and possessing a grave beauty, Canti Paralleli follows in the footsteps of Shostakovich’s late song cycles but without giving way to the despair that haunts so much of the Russian composer’s late music. Though the confessional nature of Mansurian’s music often darkens the character of his music, his music also exhibits a sensuality and ultimate sense of life affirmation absent in the work of the elder composer.

Pianist Ray returned as the superb and graceful partner to the dark hued voice of soprano Shoushik Barsoumian. The fervency of her commitment to the music, along with the arresting beauty of her voice, made it difficult to imagine any performance of this great work that could supersede the one at Zipper Hall.

April 20, 2011

“What Beethoven’s quartet offered Dilijan was the concept that differences can be reconciled…”

Tokyo String Quartet and Dilijan turn to Beethoven for healing

By Mark Swed

Beethoven finished his String Quartet No. 15, Opus 132, in A Minor, the summer of 1725, after enduring, for a month, such abdominal agony that he was sure that he would die. Well again, if only temporarily (he died less than two years later), he made the center of his new quartet a hymn to healing.

He titled the movement a “Holy Song of Thanks from a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.” The musicologist Joseph Kerman has written that the quartet maps a psychological progress “perhaps more arresting than in any other work.” And at its core is this movement that tricks triumph from tragedy, that unites body and soul, that makes the divided self once more whole.

Opus 132 had two performances this week, both with the implication that Beethoven could provide essential spiritual succor. Dilijan, the Armenian-themed chamber music series at Zipper Hall of the Colburn School, ended its season Sunday afternoon with Opus 132 for its annual concert “In Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.”

Tuesday night, the quartet closed the final music event of the JapanOC Festival with an appearance by the Tokyo String Quartet, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County in the small Samueli Theater. No mention was made in the program of the travails by the Japanese in the wake of their devastating earthquake. But in the lobby of the adjoining Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, schoolchildren were fashioning origami cranes as a fundraiser to help the people of Japan.

Beethoven’s job was large. These two tragedies, nearly a century apart, require different responses. Japan works toward the immediate relief from suffering caused by an act of nature. Armenia’s old wounds, the result of cultural conflict, are now psychic, and the cure is the compassion of history. What Beethoven’s quartet offered Dilijan was the concept that differences can be reconciled. What it provided the Tokyo Quartet was not only the promise of “new strength,” but how unspeakably marvelous that new strength feels when it arises out of hopelessness.

Beethoven’s inspiration in his “Holy Song of Thanks” was to contrast three slow, otherworldly hymn-like sections in the archaic Lydian mode (made up of the white keys on the piano) with two “new strength” interludes, in which the music abruptly jumps out of bed, takes a deep breath and dashes out the window into the fragrant flowery fields. The sense of exhilaration is incomparable.

But the movement’s real sublimity comes later when Beethoven transforms the final hymn section into something life-affirming, into the inner workings of a new dawn.

The Dilijan performers were violinist Movses Pogossian, a superb solo violinist and chamber musician with a keenness for new music, and three members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — violinist Varty Manouelian, principal violist Carrie Dennis and principal cellist Peter Stumpf. They brought an extroverted individuality, ironically more suited to the Beethoven of new discovery than ending conflict.

The Tokyo, formed in 1969, still retains one original member, violist Kazuhide Isomura, and Kikuei Ikeda has been second violinist since 1974. The non-Japanese members, Canadian first violinist Martin Beaver and British cellist Clive Greensmith joined in 2002 and 2000, respectively.

The four play, dazzlingly, as one. The ensemble tone is shiny and pure. Tempos are never too fast or too slow. Contrast — one of the main characters of Beethoven’s quartet — is, for them, to be minimized.

On Tuesday, then, the Tokyo’s Lydian hymn wasn’t mystical but meditative. New strength wasn’t blowhard brawn, but instead a stirring breeze.

A sense of contemplation was felt in the other movements too. The glassy high violin passages in the trio were visionary sounding for the Dilijan, while a subtle change of light, a slightly different perspective. The Tokyo’s Beethoven offered no false hopes, just a sense that life goes on and the assurance that cherry blossoms will still be harbingers of a new-season, be it a happy or sad spring.

In the first half, the Tokyo presented an immaculate reading of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421, and an intense performance of Toru Takemitsu’s “A Way A Lone.” Written for the ensemble in 1981, the later work takes its title from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” It is music that begins over and over again, 100 short sighs in 15 minutes. “A Way A Lone,” the Tokyo seemed to imply, need not be, in a time of crisis, a way alone, and that was very moving.

April 17, 2011

A Concert of Hope and Remembrance

By Charles Fierro

For Armenians all over the world, April is a time of remembrance. On the 17th of the month, the Dilijan Chamber Music Concerts in Los Angeles presented a special program in tribute to the victims and survivors of the Genocide. At this event, the audience in the Herbert Zipper Hall heard music of great sensitivity and hope, as well as of loss and nostalgia.

The concert’s first half was devoted to vocal masterpieces, particularly the deeply touching song cycle, “Hooshardzan Mayrikis”, (Monument for my Mother) by the revered composer, Alexander Harutyunyan, who celebrates his 90th birthday this year. The six songs eloquently expressed the drama and tenderness of poems by Hovhannes Shiraz, extending the concept of motherhood to the country and the language, as well.

Selections from the song cycle, “Along the Field”, a relatively late work by British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), portrayed both the beauty and heartache of youthful love in the radiance of the English countryside. The music of the famous “Chanson Perpetuelle” by French composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) sublimated similar emotions in a mature post-Romantic idiom.

In the song cycles, youthful soprano Shoushik Barsoumian demonstrated much more than a beautiful voice and engaging stage presence. Her vocal range and dramatic projection in three distinct languages were at the service of a remarkable artistic intelligence. Her expert colleagues were violinist Aroussiak Baltaian (in the Vaughan Williams), violinists Varty Manouelian and Aroussiak Baltaian, violist Carrie Dennis, cellist Peter Stumpf and pianist Stephen Manes (in the Chausson). Manes’ collaborative pianism in the Harutyunyan cycle deserves special notice for its elegant emotional identification with the music and with the singer.

Concluding the program (and Dilijan’s successful sixth season) was one of Beethoven’s last works, the String Quartet in A minor, Opus 132. The composer had recently recovered from a near-fatal illness, and the almost autobiographical score traces his struggle and return to health with a message of hope and optimism. Violinist Movses Pogossian joined Varty Manouelian, Carrie Dennis and Peter Stumpf in a virtuosic, inspired performance. The players’ ensemble cohesiveness, perfect intonation, depth of insight and compelling “long line” made the challenging music totally comprehensible and satisfying.

Altogether, the concert was a fitting tribute to the occasion.

Charles Fierro is a concert pianist and Professor Emeritus of Music at California State University Northridge.

March 20, 2011

Heavenly Music at Dilijan Concerts

By Charles Fierro

An attentive, appreciative audience braved the Sunday afternoon storm on March 20 to attend the Dilijan Chamber Music Concert at Zipper Hall in downtown Los Angeles. They were rewarded by a program that featured four new pieces by Armenian composers and two works by the American, George Crumb.

Stepan Rostomyan, 55, is the recipient of many honors and awards. His Tagh of Angels (2001) for soprano and chamber ensemble evokes a devout celestial atmosphere with utmost clarity and discretion. He even asks the instrumentalists to chant alleluias and amens while they play. The total effect was spellbinding. In contrast, his Symphony no. 3 (1989) for ensemble and prerecorded sounds pays homage to the victims of the devastating earthquake in Gyumri that year. Deafening alarms, tolling bells and, ultimately, a consoling hymn by a children’s choir pay eloquent tribute to the faith and courage of the survivors. Vatsche Barsoumian conducted the ensemble in both Rostomyan works.

Aram Hovhannisyan, 27, and Artur Avanesov, 31, represented the younger generation of composers. Hovhannisian’s “Litany II Der Stein des Erbes” (2009) for solo piano creates the impression of suspended time by means of abstract gestures in which the beauty of the piano sound itself becomes a subject of meditation. In Avanesov’s “Dies ist ein Lied for dich allein…” (2003) the score asks the solo cellist to sing while playing. The music is a sensitive rhapsody whose minor modalities and cadential trills consciously refer to the cello suites and cantata arias of J.S. Bach. The result is emotionally quite moving.

Two major works by George Crumb (b. 1929) occupied the latter portion of the program, conclusively demonstrating why he is justly considered the master of eclectic inspiration and extended instrumental techniques. His “Madrigals” (1969) on surrealistic poems of Federico Garcia Lorca for soprano and chamber ensemble display extremes of drama and intimacy. Crumb’s iconic “Black Angels” (1970) for amplified string quartet (plus tuned water glasses) powerfully integrates such diverse elements as isorhythmic and palindromic structures, Gregorian plainchant, medieval cadences, Schubert’s song “Death and the Maiden”, among many others things. For four decades this haunting music has continued to command worldwide admiration and deserves its status as a classic of contemporary music.

The unusually large cast of performers at this concert maintained Dilijan’s reputation as an artistic series of the highest quality. Flutist Tigran Arakelyan, oboist Ryan Zwahlen, violinist Movses Pogossian, percussionists Andrea Moore and Sipan Amirian, clarinetist Phil O’Connor, violist Alison Spieth and bassist David Parmeter all contributed importantly to the success of the event.

Special credit goes to soprano Tony Arnold (in the Rostomyan “Tagh of Angels” and Crumb “Madrigals”), cellist Vardan Gasparyan (who played the Avanesov solo from memory and participated in both Rostomyan pieces), Vicki Ray (as ensemble pianist in the Rostomyan “Tagh of Angels” and as soloist in the Hovhannisyan “Litany”), and harpist Kyung Hee Kim-Sutre (in the Crumb “Madrigals). The Threnody String Quartet from UCLA (Ambroise Aubrun, Kristopor Najarian, Alison Spieth and Jasmine Lau, coached by Dilijan’s Artistic Director Movses Pogossian, delivered the challenging Crumb “Black Angels” not only with expertise and deep understanding, but with professional authority. Clearly, that this is a group with a real future in music.

The concert was a substantial and uplifting contribution to the cultural life of the city at a time when such experiences are especially vital.

Charles Fierro is a concert pianist and Professor Emeritus of Music at California State University Northridge.

January 19, 2009

“The concert was, in fact, a major chamber music happening, a program of superbly performed, profound and universal string trio music…”

Review: The Dilijan series premieres a new Tigran Mansurian work

By Mark Swed

Photo: From left, Movses Pogossian, Rohan de Saram and Kim Kashkashian onstage at Zipper Concert Hall.
Credit Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times

The Dilijan Chamber Music Series is, outside the Armenian community, a much too nicely kept secret. It presents half a dozen Sunday afternoon chamber music concerts a season in Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School. Most include a new piece by an Armenian composer, and a loyal Armenian fan base guarantees decent-size audiences.

Parents, hoping to preserve a cultural identity, come with children in tow. Concertgoers dress better than most matinee crowds and listen with respect. The atmosphere is gracious. No one is rushed. If you linger over brunch and arrive 25 minutes late, no matter — you’re unlikely to miss any music.

All of that is admirable, and Sunday the hall was three-quarters full. But where was everyone else? The concert was, in fact, a major chamber music happening, a program of superbly performed, profound and universal string trio music that investigated the meaning of late style and easily transcended the concerns of any single ethnicity.

The centerpiece was a new trio by Tigran Mansurian, Armenia’s leading composer, who has developed a worldwide following thanks to a series of riveting, soulful CDs on the ever-hip ECM label. He will turn 70 this year, and Dilijan commissioned a short score in celebration.

Surrounding Mansurian’s trio were selections from Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Signs, Games and Messages” — 11 exceedingly brief pieces by Hungary’s leading composer. Played at the edge of audibility, they suggest messages from the beyond. The closing work was Mozart’s magical Divertimento in E flat for string trio

The performers were Movses Pogossian, who is artistic director of Dilijan and one of the finest violinists in Los Angeles; violist Kim Kashkashian, a star; and Rohan de Saram, the former cellist of the Arditti Quartet. All are imposing virtuosos and specialists in new music. The playing was clean, precise and probing.

The string trio is a very difficult medium and one little used. Beethoven, for instance, wrote string trios at the beginning of his career and quickly realized that something was missing. A young composer wants more resources, and the string quartet, he discovered, held far more promise.

All the works on Sunday’s program, though, represented late style. Some of Kurtag pieces are miniatures in memory of friends or historical personages. The music implies more than it tells you with wisps of melody or counterpoint. Notes never touch the ground.

Mansurian’s new trio is in three short movements. In the first, a tender melody moves among the three instruments. The second has a folk character. The third is very slow and somber, the music ultimately evaporating in thin air. The instrumental textures are exquisite, and counterpoint is kept to a minimum. There is, here, the quality of late Beethoven, where every phrase implies others not realized, where every thought is condensed to its essence.

In contrast to Kurtag and Mansurian, Mozart’s divertimento, in six movements, is very expansive. It is usually hailed as the finest string trio in the repertory, maybe the only great one. Mozart treats the three players as equals and individuals, but even so he gave a little something special to the viola part, which he wrote for himself.

Kashkashian happens to have been the violist on a CD of the trio, with Gidon Kremer and Yo-Yo Ma, which is, for my money, one of the all-time great chamber music recordings. Her tone is dark — mellow yet penetrating. Her phrasing is not fancy. But she has, in her playing, an extreme eloquence, as if she is expressing truths.

Like her, Pogossian and De Saram use minimal vibrato. They illuminated the Mozart as if it were new music. The performance was stirring, a worthy successor to Kashkashian’s momentous recording. The little chamber music series that can, Dilijan, on Sunday, made the big time.

November 3, 2008

“I can’t remember a more beautiful chamber-music performance in this town in a very long time”

I have known about the Lark Conservatory …

By Alan Rich, www.soiveheard.com

I have known about the Lark Conservatory and the musical activities it sponsors, especially the Dilijan Concert Series. I keep having to tell Movses Pogossian, the series’ artistic director and a terrific local violinist, that his this-and-that concert falls on the wrong date for me. This time the presence of the Schubert Quintet automatically made it the right date. Movses played second violin, with Guiillaume Sutre; Paul Coletti was the violist; Ronald Leonard and Antonio Lysy were the cellists. THEY EVEN TOOK THE FIRST-MOVEMENT REPEAT, bless them. Their playing of the slow movement had me clinging to my seat. I can’t remember a more beautiful chamber-music performance in this town in a very long time.

October 5, 2008

“Deeply moving, technically accomplished, and spiritually uplifting”

By Byron Adams, University of California, Riverside

The Dilijan Concert Series opened its fourth season with a demanding program of deeply introspective works, rather than a display of musical fireworks such as might be expected from the opening program of an ambitious season. The concert proceeded beautifully, however, as each piece revealed the different ways in which composers look within to discover musical riches. These scores, by established masters such as Schnittke and Brahms, along with two of the most gifted of contemporary Armenian composers, were truly profound in their explorations of their creator’s inner landscapes.

Sharafyan’s haunting piano piece, Voices of the Invisible Blue Butterflies, was the first work on the program, and elegantly set the mood for the entire afternoon. Played with exquisite tone by pianist Dzovig Markarian, this piece swirled about in a manner at once capricious and haunting. Sharafyan’s highly individual and invariably attractive idiom proved, once again, a fascinating experience for attentive listeners. The second work on the first half of the concert, Schnittke’s grim but powerful Piano Quintet, was given a highly-charged performance that explicated fully the searing emotional quality of this music. A memorial to the composer’s beloved mother, this score delineates a bleak, at times virtually barren, world of sonority; only in the final movement does the faintest ray of hope pierce the pervasive gloom. But, despite its pessimism, this is a masterly score that held the audience spellbound.

The second half of the program opened with a world premiere of a work commissioned for the occasion, Artur Avanesov’s Zemestani/Bahari/Beheshti for violin and piano. This piece is an extraordinary achievement for such a young composer, who demonstrates a mastery of texture and color as well as a curiously idiosyncratic lyricism. This is an unabashedly “postmodern” work, in that it refers to a plethora of past musical styles, including those of Baroque violin pieces. The performance, by violinist Movses Pogossian and pianist Dzovig Markarian, was superb: deeply moving, technically accomplished, and spiritually uplifting.

The final work on the concert was Brahms’s transcendent Clarinet Quintet, op. 115, which was given an incandescent performance by clarinetist Michele Zukovsky, with a quartet consisting of violinists Movses Pogossian and Henry Gronnier, violist Varly Manouelian, and cellist Tiimothy Landauer. Brahms composed his Clarinet Quintet very late in his career, during a creative Indian summer caused by his obsession with the superb clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld of the Meiningen Orchestra. This music has often been called “autumnal,” but it is also music that, however autumnal, evokes gradually waning sunlight. Thus Brahms’s quintet represents the golden late afternoon of German music, before it flared into the lurid sunset of Mahler and Strauss, and then darkened inexorably into the lurid twilight of Zemlinsky and Berg. Zukovsky played this heart-rending music with a seamless legato and profound expression, and the quartet followed her lead with a rich, touching sonority. All in all, this was a quietly significant concert offered by an important and inspired chamber music organization.

April 1, 2008

“Dilijan group is on a mission”

Concert at Zipper Hall is a tapestry of Armenian works.

By Josef Woodard, Special to The Times

A stated goal of the impressive Dilijan Chamber Music Series, now in its third season, has been to celebrate the riches of Armenian music and give a forum to Armenian musicians based in Los Angeles and beyond.

By blending Armenian music with that of other cultures, Dilijan (named after an Armenian resort city) weaves a tapestry of a larger culture.

That mission reached a high point Sunday afternoon at Zipper Hall with the U.S. premieres of three fascinating Armenian pieces, by Artur Avanesov, Eduard Hayrapetian and Tigran Mansurian (who was in the hall). Armenian strengths aside, the program was also neatly divided between Armenian and Hungarian music, and it was a Hungarian composer whose voice rose above the others.

Gyorgy Ligeti’s trio for horn, violin and piano, “Hommage a Brahms,” has an unfair advantage in that it is, as violinist and series director Movses Pogossian rightly told the crowd, a “crown jewel” of chamber music literature. Wisely, Pogossian programmed a seamless segue into the Ligeti out of Gyorgy Kurtag’s short, coolly evocative “Tre Pezzi.” That 1979 piece demonstrates Kurtag’s keen ability to suggest a dream state through music — neither a pleasant nor a harsh dream but a place dislodged from rational reality.

Ligeti’s horn trio, played with mesmerizing aplomb by horn player Richard Todd, pianist Vicki Ray and Pogossian, was a stunner, surely one of the chamber music highlights of the season in the Southland. The Brahms connection is oblique, hinted at in phrasing and structural elements, but the harmonic language is Ligeti’s seductive tough talk, expressed in complex, surprising and cathartic sweeps of energy.

Avanesov, the youngest composer on the bill (born in 1980), projects a strong and sensitive assurance in ” . . . leise . . . “, a short piece for piano and clarinet played solidly by Armen Guzelimian and Phil O’Connor, respectively. A subtle and airy thing, it wafts on romantic and impressionistic influences, though clearly from a contemporary starting point, and it whetted one’s appetite for more from this promising composer.

Hayrapetian’s “Sonata for Two Violins and Piano,” circa 1988, craftily mixes a neo-Romantic spirit with tonalities and melodic synchronizations that move beguilingly in and out of focus. Violinists Pogossian and Endre Granat were the suitably dizzying conversationalists.

Mansurian has gained increasing attention in recent years, partly through his expanding international exposure via ECM recordings. What we heard, though, was a pocket-sized 1965 piece written when the composer was in his 20s. Mansurian’s “Little Suite,” played by Guzelimian, is an admixture of gnarly dissonance, folkish asides and otherwise Bartok-ish manners. It led naturally into the concert’s closer, Bartok’s “Contrasts.”

The most familiar piece of the afternoon, “Contrasts” is a melange of the composer’s classic modernism and jazzy flavorings, written for clarinetist Benny Goodman and violinist Josef Szigeti in 1938. Here, the exacting performing parties were O’Connor, Granat and Guzelimian.

To have a Bartok work as the closest thing to a war horse on a concert program says a lot about the courage and exploratory spirit of the Dilijan project. Keep an ear out.

April 25, 2007

“The diverse sounds of Tigran Mansurian”

A program of his work traces its roots to Armenia as well as Modernism. The packed Zipper Hall listens.

By Mark Swed, Times Staff Writer

Tigran Mansurian’s time may not have quite arrived, but it’s getting very close. The Colburn School’s Zipper Hall was full Monday for the chamber music component of “A Mansurian Triptych,” three concerts sponsored by the Lark Musical Society. Friday night had been devoted to choral works. Tonight at the Alex Theatre in Glendale two big concertos are scheduled, including one for violin that premiered in Sweden this year.

Zipper was full because the concerts were programmed to coincide with the anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and because Mansurian is, for Armenians — of whom there are many in Southern California — a legendary musical figure. The rare presence of the composer onstage to accompany violist Kim Kashkashian in arrangements of “Four Hayrens” — short pieces of profound beauty from 1967, originally written for voice and piano — was the kind of thing you take your children to so they can tell their grandchildren about it.

In fact, it probably doesn’t make much sense to try to separate Mansurian’s works from what they represent to a people who have had more than their share of cultural and political struggles in modern history. Yet though his music is Armenian to the core, it also shares many of the spiritual concerns of other Eastern European composers of his post-Shostakovich generation, including the Estonian Arvo Pärt, the Pole Henryk Gorecki, the Georgian Giya Kancheli, the Russian Alfred Schnittke, the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov and the Tartar Sofia Gubaidulina.

Like them, Mansurian, who was born in 1939, is a former musical dissident who as a young man adopted forbidden Western Modernist techniques but later reconciled them with more traditional music of deep religious conviction.

The six chamber works Monday covered nearly 40 years, yet the kinship between “Four Hayrens” and the Agnus Dei for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, written last year, was evident. In both, Mansurian displayed melodic restraint. Lyricism is ever present as is a gentleness of spirit. Expression comes in small, intense moments, in tiny tremblings of tone.

In the Agnus Dei, which lasted 15 mesmerizing minutes, the clarinet (exquisitely played by Gary Bovyer) reached such a degree of quiet tenderness that the ending felt more like a mystical breeze lightly touching the skin than sound waves striking the ear.

The String Quartet No. 3 begins in a harsher, almost Bartokian fashion, but it too ends somewhere beyond, with an Adagio full of strange outbursts and ethereal violin solos. The gripping, expert performance was by violinists Movses Pogossian and Searmi Park, violist Alma Fernandez and cellist Armen Ksajikian. If they haven’t thought of forming a quartet, they should.

Madrigal II from 1976 is an attempt to wed Armenian music and Monteverdi for soprano, flute, cello and piano. Soloist Shoushik Barsoumian’s nervousness was part hers, part the music’s, though both score and soprano eventually quieted down.

“Lamento” for solo violin, written in 2002, begins wrathfully but also gradually calms to a state of sad resignation. The violin writing is virtuosic, and Pogossian, one of the tribute’s organizers, played it very well.

After “Four Hayrens,” in which Mansurian proved downright haunting in the intensity of his piano playing, Kashkashian joined Lynn Vartan in Duet for viola and percussion, written for the violist in 1998. The work, given its West Coast premiere last week at the University of Judaism, is, like its title, abstract, a study in the raw expression of sound.

Here, it was Kashkashian who cast a spell with every tone she played. Vartan supported her with a rainbow of shimmering effects on marimba and gongs. The score seemed both very old and very modern, very sophisticated and very elemental, all at the same moment.

April 25, 2007

“Tigran Mansurian digs deep for his craft”

Perhaps Armenia’s top living composer, he says writing music is always a struggle.

By Chris Pasles, Times Staff Writer

Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian may not be a household name. But in his homeland, in Armenian diaspora communities and in Europe’s new music circles, he is regarded as Armenia’s greatest living composer. Recently, he’s been getting even wider notice.

The taste-making German label ECM has issued four CDs of his music (“Monodia” was nominated for a 2005 Grammy), and a fifth is planned. Within the last month, New York has heard two U.S. premieres: “Con Anima” for string sextet at Merkin Concert Hall and an Agnus Dei for clarinet, violin, cello and piano at Carnegie Hall. And between tonight and Wednesday night, the Glendale-based Lark Musical Society, which sponsors the enterprising Dilijan Chamber Music Series, is presenting “A Mansurian Triptych” — three concerts programmed to commemorate the 92nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

Mansurian’s epic a cappella choral work, “Ars Poetica,” will be performed tonight at the downtown L.A. Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall. Selections from his chamber music, including the Agnus Dei, will be played Monday at Zipper. And on Wednesday, orchestral works, including the U.S. premiere of his Violin Concerto No. 2, titled “Four Serious Songs,” and his Viola Concerto, ” … and then I was in time again … ,” will be played at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

What audiences will hear is “very strong emotional music,” according to Anja Lechner, cellist of the Munich, Germany-based Rosamunde String Quartet, which has recorded three Mansurian works for ECM. “That’s maybe why it goes directly to people’s hearts.”

Mansurian himself believes that music has a spiritual purpose. “There are two main roots to music,” he said in an interview this week. “The first one is the religious, Christian aspect, the issue of pain and spirituality, the pain of Christ being crucified and the guilt that comes from it and our relationship to God. The second one is our instinctive search for Paradise Lost. That’s what makes music.”

Because he shifted between Armenian and Russian, Mansurian was speaking through several interpreters at the Lark Musical Society offices. A gentle, elegant man with flowing white hair, he spoke in a light, precise tenor, often animating his remarks with eloquently shaped gestures that belied the struggle he said composing has always been for him.

“Since childhood to now, my fingertips are bleeding from the conflict,” he said. “It was always my personal fight or mission.”

Born Jan. 27, 1939, to Armenian parents in Beirut, he moved with his family to Soviet Armenia in 1947 and then in 1956 to the capital, Yerevan, where they settled. He studied at the Yerevan Music Academy and at the Komitas State Conservatory, where, after earning a doctorate, he taught and later became rector.

He won two first prizes in the All-Union competition in Moscow in 1966 and 1968 and the Armenian State Prize in 1981.

Armenia is still his home, but his daughter, Nvart Sarkissian, lives in Glendale, and because his wife, Nora Aharonian, died last year, he plans to spend more time here.

His early works combined neoclassicism and Armenian folk traditions. Subsequently, he adopted 12-tone and serial techniques. His more recent works are a mix of all these influences.

“I have tried to find myself in the old Armenian music,” he said. “I have tried to find myself in Boulez’s serialism. When you go deep in these traditions, you will find the things that are true to your individual roots. Generally, I compose what’s been developing and growing inside me for a long time.”

In addition, he said, he has always been drawn to the written word. “As a musician, the Armenian language was one of my first teachers,” he said. “One’s childhood tongue and the first impressions of language are very important for any musician.”

“Four Hayrens,” for example, is a setting of Armenian poems. “Ars Poetica” consists of poems by Yeghishe Charents, a victim of Stalin’s purges. The title of his Viola Concerto, ” … and then I was in time again … ” is a line spoken by Quentin Compson, the doomed hero of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”

“I have devoted 10 years of my life to Faulkner,” he said, before spontaneously reciting the opening of that novel in Russian.

“He’s difficult, but once you go into Faulkner, there is no higher joy. If I were to choose the person who was most significant to me, it would have been Quentin because of his incredible honesty.”

Mansurian read the book first in Russian, but upon later reading an Armenian translation, he said, he discovered that the Soviet version had been heavily censored.

“Just like the Soviet state got involved in every other aspect of life, it got involved in translations,” he said. “That’s how things were done.”

Living under the Soviet system, he added, was “some sort of different Faulknerian tale. It was another monumental feeling of loss.”

For all his identification with his homeland, Mansurian said he prefers to regard himself as a composer rather than an Armenian composer.

January 9, 2007

“Kafkaesque, in a good way”

The repertoire for soprano and solo violin isn’t large, but it does contain the masterful ‘Kafka Fragments.’

by Mark Swed, Times Staff Writer

Ever claustrophobic, Kafka could not stomach big words. “If uttered by a young woman, breathlessly,” the marvelous Italian writer Roberto Calasso notes in his magisterial recent study of the writer, he had the impression that they emerged “like fat mice from her little mouth.”

That image alone should be enough to scare composers away from setting Kafka texts, what with music’s fondness for fattening every syllable. And how many young sopranos are willing to accept rotund rodents as a side effect of song?

No Kafka-inspired opera has stuck. It might be tempting to argue that Kafka simply does not call for music, were Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Kafka Fragments” for the unusual combination of soprano and solo violin not a masterpiece. Introducing a performance of the hourlong cycle at the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon, violinist Movses Pogossian aptly noted the difficulty in discovering just where the Czech writer ends and the Hungarian composer begins.

Written in 1986, “Kafka Fragments” was immediately recognized as something special. But so demanding on performers and so draining on listeners is this cycle of 40 short musical incidents (ranging from around 15 seconds to 7 minutes) that it was rarely encountered until recently.

Two years ago, Peter Sellars staged it for soprano Dawn Upshaw and violinist Geoff Nuttall as the devastating psychosexual inner life of a wife cleaning house, watching Iraq disintegrate on television and falling apart. Last year, in honor of Kurtag’s 80th birthday, ECM released a new recording by Juliane Banse and Andras Keller of the “Fragments” as intensely focused understated drama.

Pogossian, an Armenian violinist, and a young American soprano, Tony Arnold, are now touring the “Fragments” in preparation for another new recording on Bridge Records. Their powerful performance Sunday was part of Dilijan, a chamber music series for which Pogossian is artistic director.

Dilijan, named for a resort town in Armenia, has the mission of furthering Armenian music, and Pogossian began the program with three short works connected in one way or another to Armenia. All three were also meant to further the soprano/violin duo repertory, of which there isn’t much.

But first some praise for Pogossian, who is a terrific violinist. He has the flair and the huge technique of a Romantic-era specialist, a virtuosity and magnetism that he applies to newer music. Dilijan is an ambitious and interesting series, which draws excellent musicians. But its main flaw is that it thus far doesn’t seem to promote itself outside the Armenian community. That is enough to fill about half the 415-seat Zipper. These concerts, and particularly Pogossian, deserve much wider exposure.

The three introductory pieces were intriguing if minor. John Asatryan’s “Dou Merzhetsir” was an arrangement for violin and soprano of a somber work by a midcentury Armenian composer. Paolo Cavallone’s “Frammenti Lirici” and Artur Avanesov’s “In Luys” were world premieres by young composers. The first is an Italian avant-gardist’s deconstruction of an Armenian tune used in Berio’s “Folk Songs.” The second is a rhapsodic rendering of Kilikian folk song with an especially memorable violin part.

“Kafka Fragments” is a journey, and that is how Arnold and Pogossian approached it. Arnold is an impressive singer, with operatic projection and tremendous flexibility. She has recently made a very good recording of George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices for Children,” which has been nominated for a Grammy. In the first half of the program she was commanding.

The Kafka fragments selected by Kurtag from diary entries are individual peerings into both the composer’s and the writer’s inner life. Sunday’s performance seemed to separate the two.

Pogossian’s characterful, concentrated playing conveyed the complex context that Kurtag give his music, cross-referencing earlier composers, paying tributes to contemporaries and conveying his own concentrated inner sound world.

Arnold, though, is more an overt illustrator. Some fragments go off like bombs. “Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life” — the musical shards are soft, shockingly loud, soft, shockingly loud. She sings with her body, her face, her eyes, which can be very effective in a Schubert song cycle.

But what I most missed was the deeper meaning of this journey. Arnold appeared unchanged by Kurtag and Kafka. An hour passed by the clock. Many small stories were told, many fat mice flew out of her mouth. Then time was up. It should feel as though time slows down. Unlike Arnold, Upshaw became a new and different, wiser and deeper woman, and an audience could be altered too, after a clock-stopping Kafka-Kurtag immersion.

Still, the dedication and attention to detail by Arnold and Pogossian was moving, and I look forward to the recording. All Arnold really needs is a good drama coach who doubles as a Kafkaesque exterminator.

October 3, 2006

“Inspired in Armenia, played in L.A.”

The Dilijan series, which blends European pieces and works by Armenian composers, begins a second season.’

by Richard S. Ginell, LA Times

Dilijan is a forested Armenian resort town not far from Lake Sevan that has attracted composers and musicians over the decades. It is also the inspiration for the Dilijan Chamber Music Concert Series in faraway Los Angeles, which began its second season in the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon.

So far, the launch seems to have taken hold. The series has a concept — mixing standard European repertoire with works by Armenian composers — a marvelously warm-sounding acoustical space, top-notch guest artists and a built-in audience from the L.A. area’s vast, loyal Armenian community that filled most of the seats Sunday. And as the lineup of musicians indicated, you don’t have to be Armenian to play.

In the field of new or overlooked repertoire, Dilijan scored big with the powerful Violin Sonata of Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), who may be the best-known Armenian composer in the West after Aram Khachaturian. Like Khachaturian, Babajanian was a nationalist who was never fashionable among the new-music gatekeepers, despite his embrace of serial ideas late in life. But this piece has universal substance amid the Armenian flavor, with its turbulent first movement themes and development, its ghostly interludes in the second and third movements, its laconically singing passages that recall Shostakovich.

Violinist Movses Pogossian — who is also the artistic director of the Dilijan series — audibly identified with this piece to his core, producing a particularly striking, thin yet taut steel-wire tone in the muted passages of the second movement. Pianist Robert Thies was his sympathetic partner.

The chief marquee name on the program was violinist Ani Kavafian, who with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra violist Roland Kato and cellist Antonio Lysy offered a bustling rendition of Beethoven’s String Trio, Opus 9, No. 1, whose skittering, whirlwind finale seems to anticipate the scherzos of Mendelssohn.

Then all five musicians came together in Brahms’ mighty Piano Quintet in F minor — conventionally paced, with enough virile weight, lush symphonic textures in the lower middle range, and streaks of vehemence in the scherzo and finale. Understandably, after this heavy main course, there were no encores.

DILIJAN CONCERT SERIES CELEBRATES ITS FIFTH SEASON

by Charles Fierro

For any arts organization, the fifth year is a significant landmark. At that point they have demonstrated viability, established their reputation and developed a following. Under the visionary leadership of its directors, Vatsche Barsoumian and Movses Pogossian, the Dilijan Chamber Music Series in Los Angeles has accomplished all this and more. It is now one of the jewels of the Southern California arts scene.

This is due to the consistent quality of their performances as well as to their unique mission: to present the classics of Western classical chamber music to Armenian-American audiences and to bring new Armenian music to a wider public.

No finer example of their success could be imagined than their concert of April 25 at Zipper Hall. In a program for string instruments, compositions by two titans of Western music flanked three pieces by the revered composer/musicologist Komitas (1869-1935). The futuristic complexities of two late Beethoven works (Grosse Fuge, Opus 133 and Cavatina from String Quartet, Opus 130) and J.S. Bach’s dazzling Goldberg Variations were the perfect foil for the profoundly moving Komitas songs arranged for string orchestra by Sergey Aslamazyan.

The conductorless 16-member UCLA Camarades String Ensemble delivered the Beethoven Grosse Fuge and Komitas pieces with panache and sensitivity. Violinists Guillaume Sutre and Movses Pogossian, violist Paula Karolak and cellist Antonio Lysy revealed the heartfelt emotion in the Beethoven Cavatina.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations (in a remarkable transcription for string trio by Dmitry Sitkovetsky) sounded so completely idiomatic that one did not at all miss their original setting for harpsichord. Pogossian, Sutre and Lysy brought exhilarating tempos and authoritative virtuosity to the performance.

It was a stimulating concert experience, one that bodes well for the future of the Dilijan Series. At its conclusion, this writer, like the rest of the audience, left the hall energized with renewed optimism.

Charles Fierro is a concert pianist and Professor Emeritus of Music at California State University, Northridge

October 3, 2006

Violinist Strives To Bring Armenian Music To Mainstream

By Suzy Cazandjian

When violinist Movses Pogossian was appointed artistic director of the newly formed Los Angeles-based Dilijan Chamber Music Series in 2005, he faced a formidable challenge: bringing Armenian music performed by high caliber musicians to the mainstream. Pogossian has successfully embarked on this path with the recent completion of Dilijan’s six-concert inaugural season. By presenting Armenian works side-by-side with Western repertoire performed by acclaimed musicians at Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the series has attracted an Armenian as well as non-Armenian audience.

“I just love directing this series; it is a wonderful thing for Armenian music,” said Pogossian who was recently in Detroit to be a guest on the Heritage of Armenian Culture Radio. The feature on Pogossian will air on Sunday, May 21 at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time at www.wnzk.com (to access click on the link “Listen to WNZK” on the left-hand side of the Web page) and on WNZK 680 AM in Detroit. The Dilijan Chamber Music Series was founded by Lark Music Society members under the leadership of conductor Vatsche Barsoumian. Besides showcasing traditional pieces of Western classical chamber music and Armenian chamber works performed by acclaimed musicians, Dilijan also presents world premieres of chamber music by contemporary Armenian composers. Works by Edward Mirzoyan, Aram Khachaturian, Alan Hovhaness, Arno Babajanian and Gomidas were presented this past season as well as world premieres by Tigran Mansurian and Vache Sharafyan.

Sharafyan received critical acclaim as a composer for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. “We had so many positive comments from our audience members about Sharafyan’s compositions; they were moved by the emotional message of his music,” said Pogossian.

Slated for next season are world premieres of newly commissioned works by David Haladjian, Artur Avanesov and Paolo Cavallone. Guest artists will include violist Kim Kashkashian, violinists Ani Kavafian and Ida Levin, and pianists Sarkis Baltaian and Norman Krieger.

Pogossian possesses an impressive array of accomplishments. Since making his critically acclaimed American debut with the Boston Pops performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 1990, Pogossian has embarked on a multi-dimensional career. A native of Armenia, he studied at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory where he completed his doctorate. At the age of 19, Pogossian became the youngest ever first prize winner of the Seventh All-USSR National Violin Competition in 1985. He later went on to win prizes in the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow and the 1991 Rodolfo Lipizer International Violin Competition in Italy. He has performed with major orchestras around the world including the Moscow Philharmonic, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and the State Philharmonic Orchestras of Estonia, Georgia and Armenia.

In 1989, Pogossian received a fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. He has performed chamber music with members of the Tokyo, Kronos and Brentano String Quartets. Additionally, he frequently collaborates with the New Hampshire-based Apple Hill Chamber Players, participating in Apple Hill’s “Playing for Peace” tours and since 1992 returning annually to Apple Hill’s Summer Chamber Music Festival and School where he is a faculty member. Pogossian is currently visiting artist teacher at the State University of New York-Buffalo and a member of the Baird Piano Trio. He has previously served on the faculties of Duquesne, Bowling Green and Wayne State Universities.

“I am very encouraged by our first season and by world-famous musicians performing Armenian pieces and telling me that this is great music. I want to spread our music, not only to audiences, but to performers as well. This will be the most effective way for us to broaden the recognition of Armenian music,” said Pogossian.

The Dilijan Chamber Music Series is financed largely through contributions.