I did not come all the way to Yerevan to hear the Armenian Philharmonic perform Bruckner. Logic told me not to attend the concert. But a voice in the back of my head told me I would regret it if I did not go. So I went. Wow. That was not at all expected.
The Armenian Philharmonic is a functional orchestra, but I am used to much better and recently. They can handle simpler standard works, but I am not convinced they have ever tried Bruckner before. Why would they? Their music director Eduard Topchjan may be the one conductor who can make them sound reasonable, but I also did not suspect Bruckner to form part of his repertory. Still, someone handed them the keys to heaven, and they opened the door. The orchestra was the same as always, but tonight it transcended itself. And while I certainly have heard better playing, this performance had nothing to do with the playing. I do not give too many standing ovations, but once I managed to wipe the tears from my eyes and regain my composure, I stood.
The concert opened with the Sibelius Violin Concerto, performed with soloist Haik Davtian. Davtian had a light touch, playing softly and mysteriously, even during the more robust passages, in a way that actually evoked the depressive Finn’s mood. Topchjan had the orchestra back off as well, softly softly, allowing the limited northern light to shimmer off the icy lakes. It worked in its original manner.
The Sibelius set the stage well for Bruckner. Bruckner was Sibelius’ favorite living composer at the time of his studies in Vienna, and provided much inspiration for the Finn. Topchjan used that connection to back-engineer the Bruckner 4th Symphony. The strings kept the mysterious quiet touch they had for Sibelius, while the chorales – on whatever instruments Bruckner wrote for – soared organically. Topchjan treaded cautiously, taking a slow tempo with long drawn notes. The orchestra, likely unfamiliar with the score, played carefully but not over-technically, feeling their way along. By the third movement scherzo, the whole orchestra had become comfortable and well aware that this performance had reached a special place, and Topchjan shifted into gear for a fast, boisterous, and confident scherzo, the music dancing around the Khachaturian Hall. He moved from the third to the fourth movements without break, and the strings shifted tempo and marched into the finale with great big strides. The icy lakes of Sibelius’ Finland thawed, and the stars now twinkled down upon the calm waters.
Although this may be the easiest of Bruckner’s symphonies, it still requires nuance. Bruckner performed badly can ruin more than an evening. Bruckner performed well transports the audience into the aether.
Unfortunately, as this was a benefit concert for children with cancer, there was a special encore. I do not speak Armenian so did not understand the lengthy announcement over the public address system. I could have sat through the Bruckner again. Instead, we got a mood-killing piece of I-do-not-know-what. It sounded like a lounge song from the 1950s orchestrated for large orchestra and without lyrics. Sinatra? Whatever it was, it did not belong.