Britt, Vaughan Williams, Orbelian, Babajanian, Tigranian, Khachaturian, Bernstein
The Yale Alumni Chorus came to Yerevan. It looks like they recruited most of it from the comfortable armchairs in the reading room of the Yale Club of New York, as it consisted mostly of white men of a certain age (and a bunch of younger women – when did Yale start admitting women?). But they can sing – I’ll attest to that. Apparently, this trip was organized by two conductors from the same Armenian family (Konstantin Orbelian, from Armavir, Armenia, and his nephew Constantine Orbelian, from San Francisco), who seem to have a long association with the Yale Glee Club, so the concert was put on in their honor.
The concert opened with the world premiere of “Dream and a Song” by Colin Britt, with the Chorus under Yale Glee Club conductor Jeffrey Douma accompanied by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra. The program notes provided no information at all about this work, and I have never heard of the composer. Short piece, a bit of a fanfare for voice, sufficient for getting the choral concert underway. So I suppose it worked, but was otherwise uninteresting.
The highlight of the concert came next, with the Chorus and the Philharmonic performing Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams under the baton of the Philharmonic’s artistic director Eduard Topchjan. I’ve now heard this orchestra perform dully under many batons this year, but Topchjan once again proved that he (and perhaps only he) can make it sound quite good. In this piece, Vaughan Williams set a series of Walt Whitman poems to dramatic music. Chorus and orchestra responded to the challenge. So did soprano Syuzanna Melkonyan. Baritone John Rouse was somewhat weaker, but came along for the ride.
After the intermission, the concert became eclectic. It started with a series of Armenian a cappella songs performed by the Paros Chamber Choir, a small chorus composed of long-term patients at a rehabilitation hospital in Yerevan, many of whom are confined to wheelchairs. They were good, as was the sequence of songs they chose, and they earned a rousing applause.
Unfortunately, when they left the stage, the concert took a big turn for the worse. I suppose if the two Orbelians sponsored the concert, then they deserved to be trotted out on stage themselves. Uncle Konstantin played the piano and Nephew Constantine conducted. First came “Memories of Gershwin” composed by the Uncle, a piece for piano and orchestra in the style of Gershwin, but without the talent of Gershwin. This was tolerable and entertaining, at least, unlike the next two offerings.
However, before each of the next two offerings, Uncle Konstantin took it upon himself to grab a microphone and start mumbling uncontrollably. He did so in Russian. This leads me to ask what self-respecting Armenian, born in Armenia (the program said he was born in Armavir, which is somewhat west of Yerevan), addressing an audience of Armenians in the Armenian capital, does so in… Russian. If he does not respect himself, there is little reason for me to respect him. But that aside, now back to the so-called music.
“Nocturne” by Arno Babajanian followed the mock-Gershwin. This was cheesy taken to an extreme – nightclub-style music scored for full orchestra accompanying the piano (with a piano part hammed up to the fullest by the elder Orbelian – I suppose ham goes with cheese). I half expected film credits to start rolling on the organ pipes in the back of the stage – possibly the final credits of a film would be the only time this music might have any reason to be performed.
As bad as this was, the elder Orbelian took it even further with the next work – “Birch Trees” – which he wrote himself to prove he could be cheesier than the next guy, I suppose. In addition to the overwrought orchestra and piano, we had to suffer through a tenor soloist, Yeghishe Manucharian. Manucharian’s voice was so weak he required heavy miking. Very heavy miking. So heavy, in fact, that I (and other members of the audience) literally had to cover our ears to keep our heads from exploding. Khachaturian Hall is not exceptionally large, so if Manucharian does not have a voice big enough to perform in it, then he needs to find another career. Maybe he could sing in a nightclub.
The Orbelians finally went back stage, and the stagehands ensured that the piano followed them. Eduard Topchjan returned to the podium to lead a pleasant folk-music-inspired aria from Armen Tigranian’s opera Anush. The soloist was… Manucharian. He must have seen the audience cringing during the previous piece, because when he returned to the stage he demonstrably pushed the microphone to the side and sang without it. He proved that, if he strained enough, he could fill the hall. But this also meant that his voice sounded heavily strained. Now that he broke his vocal chords, maybe he could be a waiter in a nightclub.
There followed an interlude where the Yale Alumni Chorus presented awards to Topchjan and to Constantine Orbelian. This took a while, since the two Yalie men presenting the awards were long-winded and the English-to-Armenian translator they hired was inadequate for her job.
Returning to the music, Douma took the podium again and gave us two further songs for chorus and orchestra by Aram Khachaturian, and then the final chorus from Bernstein’s Candide (“Make Our Garden Grow”). And then we got an encore. I was expecting maybe “Boola Boola,” given the make-up of the Yale Alumni Chorus, but we instead had a negro spiritual. This was truly excellent, although it was a bit incongruous seeing all those older white men with sticks up their backsides singing a negro spiritual (there was one distinguished-looking elder black man in the chorus, but he still looked like an old Yalie). Since the chorus wasn’t going to do it, the audience provided the clapping and swaying instead.