Tbilisi Conservatory Opera Studio, Tbilisi Conservatory

Paliashvili, Daisi

Walking past the Tbilisi Conservatory this afternoon, I saw a lonely poster advertising a performance of Zakaria Paliashvili’s opera Daisi an hour later.  The Conservatory is lousy at advertising, does not have a particularly useful website, and only publishes announcements in Georgian (so it also goes without saying in the Georgian alphabet, meaning that for most of us it is not easy to decipher quickly what concerts or events might be). But there it was, and boy am I glad I dropped in a got a ticket (excellent seat for about 2.50 USD).

The Tbilisi Conservatory Opera Studio’s simply-staged production and no-nonsense orchestral accompaniment allowed the terrific young voices to shine.  Standing out even more than the others was Lela Zaridze, who sang the female lead Maro with a passion.  Although the Conservatory Hall is a small space, her voice could easily fill a full-sized opera house.  As her friend Nano, Mariam Murghulis added an extra youthful freshness, particularly in their double-soprano duets.  Levan Tabatadze portraryed the opera’s villain Kiazo darkly but sympathetically – although still the bad guy in this romantic plot, he is after all the one who has been wronged.  He cut a dashing figure in his angularly gold-trimmed black chokha, although he could have used less hair gel.  Unfortunately, in the lead male role Malkhaz, Levan Abutidze, had a weaker and drier voice that simply did not match up to his peers.  He also could not act to save his life (or even to die, as he is supposed to do in Act Three, but which Abutidze did not do well either).

Revaz Takidze led the orchestra deliberately, at a somewhat slower beat than usual, but which allowed the musicians to accentuate Paliashvili’s wonderful neo-polyphony.  Since this is a concert hall and not an opera house, the orchestra “pit” is not much of a pit, meaning the orchestra easily could have overwhelmed the singers.  Credit Takidze that it did not.  The Conservatory Orchestra also sounded far better than anything I have heard in Yerevan.  Armenia turns out some great individual musicians, but I think that Georgians are naturally more musical.

So last night I experienced Komitas in Yerevan, and tonight Paliashvili in Tbilisi.  These are the greatest composers to emerge from their respective countries, and they are seldom performed outside their homelands (although Komitas was known in Europe during his lifetime).  Part of that may come from their languages (Armenian is at least Indo-European; Georgian is impenetrable).  But given music of this quality, it really should travel.  I should not have to go to Yerevan and Tbilisi to hear it live.

I also suspect I was the only foreigner in the audience both nights. And while last night’s Komitas selections were new to me, I may have been more familiar with Paliashvili’s Daisi than some of the Georgians in the audience (except perhaps the man directly behind me who periodically sang along to the lead tenor parts – not sure if he got carried away or just thought that Abutidze needed help).

Musicians of the Armenian National Opera Orchestra, Yerevan Opera Foyer


I try to keep an eye out for unusual concerts.  The Armenian National Opera has begun an intermittent series of chamber concerts in a renovated foyer by the stage entrance of the opera house, which seats about 50-60 people.  Tonight’s concert featured the music of one Soghomon Gevorgi Soghomonyan, a composer-priest who after ordination used the name “Komitas” after a seventh-century Armenian Katholikos who had written many Armenian hymns.

Father Komitas was the foremost Armenian composer of the late ninetheenth and early twentieth centuries and was known across Europe.  His musical style – for both liturgical and secular works – combined eastern harmonies with western forms, including some quite advanced twenthieth-century dynamics.  Tonight’s concert featured a selection of chamber works, not all of which by Komitas (however, there was no printed program, and the principal conductor of the Opera, Karen Durgaryan, who both conducted and played the cello tonight, gave long introductions of each piece which I could not understand).  The fliers indicated that the works not by Komitas were from the Middle Ages, but it was hard to tell which those were (I presume some of the a capella choir music, but the harmonies were similar to the modern works certainly by Komitas).  A string quintet, made up of musicians from the opera orchestra, performed the first half of the concert, joined halfway through by additional strings and the Armenian Chorus of Blind People.

In 1915, Komitas lived in Constantinople and was arrested along with hundreds of Constantinople Armenians and deported to central Anatolia to be murdered with 1.5 million other Armenians.  His international renown won his release at the last moment, but not until after he witnessed the indescribable and suffered a complete breakdown.  He may have physically survived, but they had murdered his spirit.  The final twenty years of his life he spent confined to mental institutions.  He never composed again.

For some reason, his music is no longer performed in the West.  Its reintroduction is long overdue.  In the meantime, I got the experience of hearing it live in Yerevan.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Rachmaninov, Tschaikowsky

Before tonight’s concert of the Armenian Philharmonic, the Italian Ambassador, on behalf of his country’s president, presented conductor Eduard Topchjan with the Order of Merit, making him a Cavaliere, bestowed for his services to music.  This honor he well deserved.

I had gotten sick of hearing this mediocre orchestra flail under guest conductors, and so the return of Topchjan meant an extra mark in the calendar.  The orchestra sounds remarkably different with Topchjan on the podium, and tonight’s concert showcased his ability to keep his orchestra in working order.  The concert actually began with an encore – I suppose, if Topchjan received an Italian knighthood, he needed to quickly program some Italian music in addition to the two Russian pieces already scheduled.  So he treated the ambassador to a spirited overture from I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi.

The scheduled portion of the program began with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  This concert actually marked the conclusion of the “Return Festival” (other than this concert, the Festival programmed mostly chamber music), in which Armenian-born stars who have settled elsewhere return to Armenia to perform.  Tonight’s piano soloist, Vag Papian, now based in Israel, began his international professional career as a conductor before settling in with the piano, and he at one point was the principal conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic in the late 1980s (succeeding Valery Gergiev).

Papian’s piano technique was curious – he set the bench rather high, and then hovered over the key-board as though he were short-sighted, bent over at 90 degrees with his nose practically jabbing at the tops of his fingers.  Papian handled the awful piano in the Khachaturian Hall by keeping his touch light, a softly-softly approach that hit all the notes without allowing too much of the tinny sound of this poor instrument to escape.  Topchjan kept the orchestra appropriately modulated, and an enraptured audience listened intently.  The strategy worked as well during the encore (which I could not identify), for solo piano and thus without any other instruments to cover if the piano should make its usual false noises.  Papian was rewarded by warm applause.

Oddly, half the audience did not return after the intermission for Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #4.  They missed a solid performance.  Despite a disastrous opening by the horns (especially sad, since the horns otherwise sounded great all night), Topchjan had the orchestra dancing its way through this exciting symphony, with an extra lilt in the second movement, some wonderfully-delicate play from the woodwinds in the third, and a boisterous brass finale.   Bravo, Maestro.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Schumann, Wagner, Segal

A mixed bag from the Armenian Philharmonic in the Khachaturian Hall this evening, under the baton of Lior Shambadal, the long-time chief conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, performing SchumannWagner, and a world premiere by Anna Segal.

I remember recordings of the Berlin Symphony when growing up, and recollect that it achieved a pretty decent standard.  Now that I think of it, I cannot recall having heard anything from that orchestra since my childhood, which may also explain why I have never heard of Shambadal, whom I would have expected to know of considering he has led one of the major orchestras in Berlin for the last 16 years.  After tonight, I may now understand why the Berlin Symphony has faded from its previous acclaim and disappeared from the musical map.

Shambadal’s technique was unclear, and this led to uneven performances.  Schumann’s Manfred overture which opened the concert had a certain amount of drama.  This got lost during the subsequent overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  The drama returned, however, once Armenian soprano Magda Marian Mkrtchyan stood up to deliver Isolde’s Liebestod from the same opera.  Her solid voice made an impression. Although it is not clear she had the vocal stregth to sing the whole opera, she managed the Wagnerian idiom well, and the the orchestra backed her up.  The orchestra’s performance clearly derived from the sheer force of Mkrtchyan’s personality, and not from Shambadal on the podium.

Still before the intermission, the orchestra treated us to the world premiere of Songs of the Soul by the Ukrainian-born Israeli composer Anna Segal, based on poems by Sayat-Nova, the great 18th-Century Armenian poet, composer, and diplomat who served the court of Iraki II of Georgia.  The music came across as a strange mix of Philip Glass (for its minimalist architecture), Sergei Prokofiev (for its scoring, particularly for woodwinds), and Zakaria Paliashvili (for its neo-polyphony) – and, oddly, with no discernable influence from Sayat-Nova’s own music.  The orchestra made a good account of this work, partly because the Glassian influence required thin playing from the strings, and this orchestra’s strings have a hard time managing a full sound on the best of days, whereas the winds are comparatively much better, making scoring of this work ideal for this orchestra.  Mkrtchyan came across weaker than she did for the Wagner, not in full voice and tentative, her eyes clearly darting back and forth between Shambadal’s cues and her music.  The piece was pleasant enough, and I would want to hear it again to understand it better; of course, if I hear it again, I’d probably also want to learn Armenian – the words to each song in the cycle meant something, but I had no idea what picture the music tried to paint.  The program notes were limited in Armenian, and this portion of the program was not translated into English, but I’m sure the Armenian audience understood the lyrics.

The concert closed with Schumann’s Third Symphony, for which Shambadal and the orchestra made a little mess, with all of the instruments seemingly playing independently of each other, coming in at the wrong times and keeping different speeds.  Every so often Shambadal slowed his hands down and the orchestra managed to get itself together.  The pained expressions on the musicians’ faces suggested confusion.  After a while, I think they may have started ignoring him.  The brass sounded great, but the chorales, which make this piece special, did not soar.  The orchestra got a warm applause – Shambadal less so (at his last curtain call, the audience simply stopped clapping altogether as soon as he walked back out onto the stage – he turned and walked off, and the applause resumed).

Armenian National Opera

Rachmaninov, Aleko

Rachmaninov’s seldom-performed early Aleko has long been on my wish-list of to-see operas.  I did not manage to find a production during my time in Russia, but the Armenian National Opera obliged tonight.

For reasons not apparent, instead of pairing this single-act opera with another one-acter, as might be normal for an opera lasting less than an hour, the Armenian National Opera instead used Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as an opener.  Other than the fact that both works are by the same composer, I could find little in common between a dark opera written at the start of Rachmaninov’s career and a flashy virtuoso work for piano and orchestra written towards the end of his career.  And this in an opera house.

For the Rhapsody, I could not tell if the opera company had rolled the Steinway over from the Khachaturian Hall (which is only on the other side of the same building as the opera house) or whether the opera has a twin instrument that is equally out-of-tune and sour as the one in the Khachaturian Hall.  Zhora Sargsyan pounded on the keyboard, while the orchestra perfectly matched his instrument’s bitter tone.

The orchestra sounded much better once it sunk it into the pit after the intermission, from where it provided good accompaniment to the singers rather than retaining the focus for itself.  On the podium, Karen Durgaryan kept it in place even if he added nothing in particular to the interpretation.

The opera tells the story of Aleko, a Russian who has sacrificed everything in order to run off with a band of gypsies to be with Zemfira, the gypsy woman he loves.  During the action, he comes to the realization that Zemfira is a fraud, and never loved him.  Enraged, he murders Zemfira’s current gypsy lover and then her.  Zemfira’s father, who had been similarly wronged by Zemfira’s mother but had never done anything about it, casts Aleko out of the gypsy band, cursing him to remain alone forever.

The opera, composed when Rachmaninov was only 19, lacks dramatic development but has much wonderful music.  Baritone Gevorg Hakobyan played an embittered and emotional Aleko.  The supporting characters also delivered strong-voiced performances, particularly Mikayel Hovakimyan and Perch Karazyan as Zemfira’s father and lover respectively.  As Zemfira, Elvira Khachatryan made her stage debut, for which she looked somewhat lost: she over-sang (the manner in which she sang her lullaby for her infant would more likely have kept the kid awake terrified rather than lulled it to sleep), but there was good potential there as her career takes off.

The simple sets were evocative of a rustic gypsy encampment and set a mood which allowed the singers to do their part.  The chorus blended in with the set, never upsetting the main characters (although Rachmaninov’s choral writing had not yet developed; an older Rachmaninov would have given them better material to work with in order to drive the drama forward).  On the other hand, the dancing scene in the gypsy camp, performed by the ballet troupe, gave me more evidence for why I will never attend a full ballet in this town, with their clumsy clomping, tragic tripping, and stationary stumbling.  But while the Armenian National Opera sticks to opera, the performance is more than adequate.  Perhaps not everyone shares that opinion, though, as a surprising number of people seemed to have attended purely for the ballet and walked out of the audience immediately after that scene finished.  Why they’d stay for the uncoordinated prancing and not for the singing must remain a mystery.

Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Rachmaninov, Chopin, Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, Puccini, Cilea, Sorozábal, Giménez, Khachaturian

The Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Vladimir Spivakov dropped into the Khachaturian Hall this evening, as part of its tenth anniversary season celebrations.  This orchestra was created essentially as the house orchestra of Moscow’s International House of Music, that bizarre Escher-esque building with the awful acoustics where I attended one concert (not this orchestra) and never went back again.  So, since I completely managed to miss hearing this orchestra (not to be confused with orchestras having similar names) during my time in Moscow, I finally got to hear them now in a different hall.

Incidentally, it seems that in Moscow they no longer perform exclusively in the International House of Music, but schedule a significant minority of their concerts in the Moscow Conservatory Great Hall, with its top-notch acoustics.  I suppose they too regret their link with their home venue.

According to the orchestra’s website, they were supposed to do two concerts in Yerevan, followed by one in Gyumri (Armenia’s second-largest city).  The posted programs for Yerevan were an exclusively-Rachmaninov concert and an opera gala.  In the end, they combined the concerts into a single one in each venue (abridging the Rachmaninov to a single work).  This produced a bi-polar evening.

Before the intermission, the young Ukrainian pianist Aleksandr Romanovsky joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto.  While dexterously maneauvering through Rachmaninov’s score, he also tried his best to get a sweet sound out of the Khachaturian Hall’s sour Steinway.  In this, the orchestra assisted him with some exceptionally warm playing, particularly from the woodwinds.  Afterwards, Romanovsky treated us to a moving encore rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne opus 20.

After a long intermission, the orchestra returned for a full 90-minutes-worth of opera excerpts (from operas by Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-SaënsPuccini, and Cilea, and from zarzuelas by Pablo Sorozábal and Gerónimo Giménez), joined by mezzo Juliette Galstian and soprano Hasmik Papian (both Armenian stars), and by baritone Vasily Ladyuk (a dynamic Russian).  The second portion of the concert had a spontaneous feel, in part because they did not keep to the printed program but added or subtracted arias or orchestral pieces independently of what was on the page.  Clearly they were having fun.  All three of the soloists demonstrated a sense of drama – or at least as much drama as they could muster with the arias taken out of context (and considering that the solo parts were all individual arias, so the program never allowed the three singers to interact with each other, which was unfortunate).  The orchestra, too, gave spirited accompaniment for the soloists, while also demonstrated its own spirit for the Carmen overture and intermezzi from Manon Lescaut and La Tabernera del Puerto, culminating in – as an encore – the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.

Although the playing was quite beautiful, the second half of the concert had the feel of a long set of encores, one after another, never really going anywhere.  By the time of the real encore, the orchestra’s playing had simply lost much of its spontaneity.  Yes, they played all the notes well, but no they were no longer showcasing themselves despite the boisterous music.  For a brief visit on tour, Spivakov and his orchestra should have selected their program more wisely.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Beethoven, Mozart, R. Strauss, Brahms

I did not think anyone could make that old Steinway piano in the Khachaturian Hall sound good.  Tonight, Aleksei Lubimov somehow managed to do so, and everyone in the house knew it.  The Moscow-trained pianist lifted Mozart’s Piano Concerto #27 out from the instrument, where it must have been hiding for decades.  The Armenian Philharmonic – or a chamber group of orchestra musicians, including recognizably some of the students I heard perform on Wednesday – gave him the accompaniment he needed, but otherwise stayed out of his way.  He spoke Mozart’s idiom, and the orchestra understood.

After a rhythmic applause, Lubimov returned for an encore – a sonata from the late classical or early romantic repertory that was not a showpiece but which had suitable embellishments and could showcase his pure musicality.  When the audience would not let the second round of applause die down, Lubimov returned for another similar encore.  He had no need to be flashy when he was so musical.  The piano really is not that good these days, but he restored it as much as possible to its former glory.

On the podium tonight, Stefan Willich brought an unusual personal subplot.  Willich is actually a German cardiologist (who also trained and later taught at Harvard) who conducts as a hobby.  He founded the World Doctors Orchestra, to bring together musician-doctors to give charity concerts.  So he is used to conducting amateur orchestras.  The Armenian Philharmonic is better than amateur, but normally sounds lost without its principal conductor Eduard Topchjan.  Willich managed to keep everyone mostly together, and when they played together they sounded rather reasonable.  I think the youth movement also helped, as the Youth Orchestra has sounded better than the adult one.

The concert opened with Beethoven’Coriolan Overture, in a solid if not quite dramatic reading.  After the Mozart concerto and the intermission, Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture disappeared from the program – perhaps Willich could not keep them together in rehearsal.  Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss remained, and where they stayed together they managed the chromatics.  As an encore, perhaps to complete a program by substituting for the Wagner, the orchestra played a spirited and sweeping Hungarian Dance #1 by Brahms – nothing special in this piece, so they actually sounded quite fine.  Probably a wise substitution.

Armenian State Youth Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

The first concert I ever attended in Yerevan was the Armenian State Youth Orchestra.  I had remembered that they were relatively good, compared with the adult Armenian Philharmonic, and tonight’s concert confirmed my recollection.

The Tschaikowsky Sixth Symphony allowed the orchestra to demonstrate its warm tones, which progressively heated up throughout.  The young conductor Sergey Smbatyan, who founded the orchestra in 2005 (when his father headed the Yerevan Conservatory), took the first two movements deliberately and probably too carefully, considering that the Orchestra could easily handle this music.  The third movement presto went to the other extreme, performed rather faster than normal, but at a pace that the Orchestra could keep.  The final movement brought everything together nicely.  Honestly, the adult orchestra does not manage to get this level of musicality, in tone, attack, and precision.  Smbatyan conducts without a baton, with his palms left open and facing downwards, almost as though he is petting the orchestra; yet his motions are clear and precise, and the Orchestra followed with no problem.  Currently based in London, Smbatyan has started to appear on more European orchestras’ radars.

The first half of the concert, offering Schostakowitsch’s First Violin Concerto, did not achieve the same level as the second half.  Smbatyan and the Orchestra tried, as did soloist Guy Braunstein, but something did not click.  Braunstein became the Berlin Philarmonic’s youngest-ever concertmaster in 2000 (when he was just 29) and retired at the end of last season in order to pursue a solo career.  During the two faster movements (second movement scherzo and fourth movement burlesque) he certainly demonstrated dexterity.  The slower movements (first movement nocturne and third movement passacaglia) did not offer him the same opportunities, and they emerged more workmanlike than thrilling, even though Schostakowitch’s typical chromatic games should have made them more fascinating.  The performance was not bad, and perhaps better than I had anticipated before the concert, until I discovered Braunstein’s bio during the intermission which caused me to re-evaluate.

I did not manage to find a program until the intermission (the students who were supposed to hand them out got lazy and stopped early, but they left the stash behind somewhere), so I got to listen to Braunstein before reading his biography.  As long as I thought he too was still a student (he certainly looked much younger than 42 – I am used to performers using old file photos for their program profiles but then looking older; seldom is it the other way around where the official photo makes the performer look older than in real life) I was more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; after reading his biography, I was left wondering what went wrong.

Perhaps it came from insufficient rehearsal with this orchestra and conductor, but this was something I could not observe.  Although I had an excellent seat and got a good listen (undisturbed by the audience, which was small but well-behaved), I actually saw very little.  The concert was being filmed for television, and two large cameras with cameramen filled the middle aisle and blocked my view of a good part of the stage.  Different spotlights than usual were left on throughout the concert to illuminate the room, but two of them above and behind the orchestra were unfortunately directed straight into my eyes, so I could not observe very much (I mostly had to keep my eyes closed and just listened).  This means I could not see the interaction between Braunstein and Smbatyan, which might have given me more clues.  I may try to get that seat again for future concerts, though, just for the acoustics (they do not normally film concerts, so the partly-obstructed and partly-blinded view will not often repeat).