Contemporary Armenian Chamber Music


New Focus FCR 244

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.

Tigran Mansurian in San Francisco at the Other Minds 20 concert in 2015

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.

Movses Pogossian performing the US premiere of Tigran Mansurian’s “Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) at the Other Minds Festival in 2015. The concert was in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

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.

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley Rock the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts


Ritorna vincitor!  I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago.  Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious)  featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.

Charles Amirkhanian, 25 years later and going strong with Other Minds.

Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.  She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.  

Cheng deeply focused.

Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer.  His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.

Terry Riley at 84 still going strong as both composer and performer.

This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed.  Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning.  In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc.  In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.  

The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59).  Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.

The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name.  Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style.  As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor.  On this 50th anniversary of  that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.

By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet.  While  there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.

The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980).  The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.

As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”.  Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture.  Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.

Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley.  It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.  

During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16.  More on that in future blogs.  And now on to the second half of the concert.

Terry Riley’s energy belies his age.  Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively.  And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.

Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition.  She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.

The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles.  It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas.  The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.

He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997).  This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose.  In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav.  In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath.  It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.

Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018).  It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite.  Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.  

Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work.  Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist.  Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist.  They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.

Composer Terry Riley warmly greets fellow pianist Gloria Cheng at the end of a wonderful evening of Riley’s piano music from the last 50 years.

The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause.  What a transcendent evening!  What amazing artists!