Listeners of a certain age and those versed in recent classical music history will recall another fine pair of Armenian American musicians (also sisters) whose performances and recordings introduced many to the work of Armenian American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2001) as well as John Cage, Aram Khachaturian, and others. I am speaking of pianist Maro Ajemian (1921-1978) and her sister, violinist Anahid Ajemian (1924-2016). And these fine musicians (pianist Marta Aznavoorian and cellist Ani Aznavoorian) carry on some generations later along a similar path, honoring their heritage and promoting its art.
The disc under consideration is this beautiful sampling of Armenian composers of the past 100 years (or so) beginning with Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a monk, composer, historian, and ethnomusicologist. Armenian music enters modernism and the twentieth century via Komitas. This is followed by music of four Soviet era composers and three contemporary era composers.
The liner notes are by local historian and producer Gary Peter Rejebian and the Aznavoorian sisters. In this ,their debut album, they speak of their connectedness to Armenian culture personally and musically. In fact Ani’s cello was made in Chicago by her father Peter Aznavoorian. This album is an auspicious debut and an homage to this rich culture.
They begin with five pieces by Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), better known as Komitas Vartabed, the name bestowed upon him after his ordination as a priest in 1894. These are lyrical and beautiful folksong arrangements that grasp the listener immediately. These five pieces ranging in duration from about 1 1/2 minutes to about 4 minutes. These five pieces, four for cello and piano are punctuated by a sad lament for solo piano played as the third track. Komitas, after witnessing 1915 the Armenian genocide, composed no more and, in fact, spent his remaining years in a sanitarium until he died in 1935.
The next two pieces are by one of the best known Armenian composers of the twentieth century, Aram Khachaturian. Though long subsumed into the Soviet straightjacket his individual voice produced many substantial works and his work has done much to preserve and rejuvenate his Armenian culture. These two pieces are not among his best known work but demonstrate his ability to write in smaller forms and, at least in these brief pieces, display his personal style and his love for his native culture.
These are followed by three pieces of another Soviet era composer whose voice is less well known in the United States, Arno Babajanian. Elegy (among the composer’s last works, written in homage after the passing of Aram Khachaturian) is one of two tracks for solo piano on the album and it is followed by Babajanian’s “Aria and Dance” for Cello and Piano. Certainly this is a composer whose works deserve a proper hearing and evaluation. These pieces suggest a composer with a strong voice, another to come out from the Stalinist/Soviet oversight to be heard now with new ears.
Avet Terterian is another Soviet era name whose work is virtually unknown in the west, another whose work deserves at least a second listen. His large three movement sonata for cello and piano (1956) is a major work both in duration and in content. The style is a friendly mid-twentieth century post romantic one that very well may become a regular repertoire item after hearing the powerful and convincing performance documented here.
With the next track we hear the first of the “recent” works on this recording, Serj Kradjian’s transcription of a traditional song, “Sari Siroun Yar”.
The all too brief experience of this small work by another major Soviet era composer, Alexander Arutiunian, this charming Impromptu (1948, one of his earliest compositions) is a beautiful piece but it is a mere appetizer to lead a listener to hear more from this composer who has produced work in pretty much all genres big and small. Arutiunian’s work deserves some new attention. Best known for his 1950 Trumpet Concerto, his output was large and he composed in large and small forms that demand the attention of post Soviet ears.
Back to the 21 st century with this next track, Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance (2017). Sharafyan was a student of Terterian and this work was adapted from a film score.
The Aznavoorians end with the world premiere recording of “Mount Ararat”, a paean to the Holy Mountain that dominates the landscape in the Armenian capitol city of Yerevan. It is the mountain upon which Noah’s Ark was said to have come to rest after the flood. Like Mount Fuji to the Japanese, Mount Everest to the Tibetans, and “Tahoma”, (better known now as Mount Rainier) to the Puyallup and other Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Mount Ararat is considered a holy mountain.
Peter Boyer‘s “Mount Ararat” (2021) was written for the Aznavoorian Duo. Boyer is the only non-Armenian represented here but his composition embraces the spirit of Armenian music and this is a dramatic and heartfelt love song both to the holy mountain and these musicians whose performance provides an ecstatic and virtuosic finale to this fine disc.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
This welcome recording presents music by five contemporary Armenian composers: Artur Avanesov (1980- ), Ashot Zohrabyan (1945- ), Michel Petrossian (1973- ), Artashes Kartalyan (1961- ), and Ashot Kartalyan (1985- ). All of these are new names to this writer and, most likely, to the majority of listeners. That is what makes this disc such an exciting prospect. This post WW2 generation of composers are writing music from the perspective of their generations, one which is qualitatively different than that of previous generations but all owe a debt to the man who is arguably Armenia’s first truly modern composer, Tigran Mansurian (1939- ) whose brave integration of modern trends in western music distinguish him from previous generations of classical composers whose focus was either nationalistic (as Copland was to American music) or traditional religious music for the Armenian Orthodox Christian rites. Mansurian, in addition to embracing European modernism also returned to embrace the traditional religious compositions of Komitas. Spirituality is a frequent and revered aspect of Armenian classical music.
One must, of course, acknowledge the “elephant in the room” issue of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (only now in 2021 finally acknowledged by the United States) as a factor in some degree in the artistic output of this small nation. There are no obvious references as such in the compositions recorded here but the selection of texts which either inspire or are literally set to be sung are notably somber whether hat be the Latin title of the first work on the disc, Artur Avanesov’s “Quasi Harema Maris” taken from the Book of Job or the beautiful but lonely poetry of Vahan Tekayan set in Artashes Katalyan’s “Tekayan Triptych”. Horrors such as this affect generations after all.
It was Maestro Movses Pogossian who kindly sent me a review copy of this album. He played a large role in the conceptualization and production of this album. He also plays violin on the first track. The Armenian born Pogossian, a world renowned violinist, is also the head of the Armenian Music Program at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. He is also the artistic director of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series and artistic director of the VEM Ensemble, a group of graduate musicians in residence at UCLA. His involvement is yet another reason to get this disc. It is clearly a project close to his heart and one upon which he has invested a great deal of artistic energy.
This album was recorded in May, 2019 and released in 2020 where it ran up against the pandemic shutdowns which affected performing musicians and temporarily stifled this reviewer as well. So here is my very appreciative review perhaps a year later than intended.
There are 18 tracks containing pieces by five Armenian composers, all of whom took part in this production.
The first track contains a piece for piano quintet in one movement (Movses Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; Niall Ferguson, cello; and the composer Artur Avanesov at the piano). “Quasi Harena Maris” (2016) takes its Latin name from the Biblical Book of Job. The title in English reads, “Like the Sand of the Sea”. It is a metaphor spoken by Job as he compares his grief to the sand of the sea sinking in its heaviness. The piece is described by the composer as a set of variations. Microtonal gestures evoke a choir interacting in a sort of call and response strategy with the piano. This is a powerful piece sometimes meditative, sometimes declamatory, but always evoking pain and sadness such as that described by the Biblical Job. While embracing modernism in his compositional methods Avanesov embraces spirituality as well.
The second track contains another single movement work, Novelette (2010) by Ashot Zohrabyan. It is scored for piano quartet (Varty Manouelian, violin; Scott St. John, viola; Antonio Lysy, cello; and Artur Avanesov once again at the piano. This work seems to have much in common with the first in that it embraces modernist techniques with spiritual references to suggest longing and separation. It is another powerful expression which engages the listener with clever invention while evoking a post apocalyptic sadness.
Now we move from quintet through quartet and on to, of course, trio. This work, also in a single movement, is scored for piano trio (Varty Manouelian, violin; Charles Tyler, cello; and Artur Avanesov on piano. Michel Petrossian’s, “A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire” (2017), the title a contrasting of two different translations of the biblical event in which the Angel of God appears to Moses in a burning bush. The composer describes this piece as an investigation of identity (his own being variously of “Armenian by birth, Russian by education, and French by culture”). It is also an homage to Mr. Pogossian. More kinetic and varied than the previous two pieces, this tour de force nonetheless also knows pain.
Tracks 4-6 contain the “Tekeyan Triptych” by Artashes Kartalyan showcases the poetry of Vahan Tekeyan in an English translation by Vatsche Barsoumian. The UCLA VEM Ensemble (Danielle Segen, mezzo-soprano; Ji Eun Hwang and Aiko Richter, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; and Jason Pegis, cello). This is a beautifully lyric setting of some mighty somber poetry which is very much in keeping with the tone of this recording. The VEM Ensemble handles this lyricism with ease and professionalism.
We now move on to music for something other than strings and piano, namely the “Suite for Saxophone and Percussion” (2015) by Ashot Kartalyan. This five movement suite puts this writer in the mind of similar works by American composer Alan Hovhaness, the composer whose immersion in Armenian culture introduced many (this writer included) to the splendors of Armenian art music. This piece uses instrumental choices similar to Hovhaness and utilizes contrapuntal writing as well. but one cannot miss the jazz inflections doubtless gleaned from Kartalyan’s exposure to the work of his jazz musician father. This suite is also a more animated piece providing relief from the intense and somber music on the first half of the disc.
The final seven tracks are given to a selection from a series of works by the hard working pianist/composer who performed in the first three works on the disc. And it is here that we can solve the mystery of the title of the album as well. These brief works seem to be etudes, experimental compositional efforts which doubtless become material in some way for later works. The third piece presented here is titled “Modulation Necklace”. This selection comes from what the composers says are some seventy similar works under the title “Feux Follets” (frenzied flames in English). They are said to have no singe unifying aspect but it appears that these are an insight to some of the composer’s compositional methods. They provide a calm and curiously speculative little journey which leaves the listener wanting more.
This is a delightful disc made with serious scholarship and dedication which introduces audiences to the splendors of contemporary Armenian art music. One hopes that this well lead to more and larger works being recorded.