Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Khachaturian, Mendelssohn

Dora Serviarian-Kuhn has a reputation as the world’s leading interpreter of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto.  That must be a mixed blessing, since this is clearly not one of his best works.  Although jarring, it lacks the drama of much of his music: noise does not equal excitement.  Her hands handled the leaps and bounds athletically, and I think the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra hit most of the notes.  But for a piece with a lot going on, it was actually quite dull.

In contrast, the Mendelssohn 4th Symphony after the break did provide drama in abundance.  Maestro Eduard Topchjan had the podium – my last chance to see him conduct for a while – as he led his orchestra through Mendelssohn’s scenic tour through Italy.  The Armenian Philharmonic strings still sound a little thin and the winds have a tendency to jump their cues, but those are normal problems here.  Otherwise Topchjan kept the pacing clear and lively.  The audience, which probably came in predisposed to cheer the Khachaturian work rather than the Mendelssohn, clearly knew which of the two halves of the concert came out better as evidenced through the much more rambunctious applause in the second half.

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Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Mahler

Eduard Topchjan decided to introduce Armenia to Mahler’Lied von der Erde this evening, in the work’s premiere performance in this country.  With Topchjan on the podium, the Armenian Philharmonic made a valient effort.  However, it was perhaps a bit too ambitious for this orchestra.  They actually sounded good (if not always together, as usual), and Topchjan kept his speed and stick technique deliberate.  But the orchestra members all had frightened looks on their faces as their eyes darted between their music stands and Topchjan.

Individually, they actually did quite well on the whole, but the entire piece missed an overall feel, with no lilt or angst, as appropriate.  The soloists both had pleasant bittersweet voices.  Veteran northern Irish mezzo Zandra McMaster clearly has sung this before, whereas the young Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan may not have. In these circumstances, the lack of experience helped, as Avetisyan sounded more fresh and excited.  McMaster lacked emotion, and her sections tended to drag.

Speaking of ambition, perhaps Das Lied was a bit too ambitious for the three-year-old (or thereabouts) in the seat next to me.  She was well-behaved to start, but by an hour in she was crying uncontrollably.

Armenian Philaharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Bizet, Gounod, Beethoven

Two weeks after my father died, I decided it was OK to start going to live concerts again.

I have long noted that only its principle conductor Eduard Topchjan seems to make the mediocre Armenian Philharmonic sound good.  I have suspected, though, that this might be because he does not schedule good guest conductors.  So tonight I got to hear what would happen if a truly excellent guest conductor took the podium: Pavel Kogan, whom I have seen at the helm of his Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, came to Yerevan.

The orchestra responded beautifully to him.  Even the normally-creeky strings produced full and nuanced tones.  Although not everyone always managed to play together, they still did far better than they normally do under guest conductors.

The concert opened with the suite #1 from Bizet’s incidental music to L’Arlésienne, in a reading which emphasized the music’s often-hidden peculiar inner harmonies and the melodrama sufficient to remember that Bizet wrote the music to augment a drama.

In contrast, the ballet music from Gounod’Faust was far less dramatic, because it never belonged in the opera to begin with.  Gounod had interpolated it into the opera only to fulfill the Paris Opera’s absurd ballet requirement.  So while the music did not portray drama, it still needed to dance, and Kogan had the orchestra dancing appropriately.

After the intermission came Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.  Although not programmatic, this symphony has great drama like all Beethoven symphonies, albeit more subtle.  Kogan knew how to draw out the drama that, when hidden, makes this symphony not well-understood.  The symphony, which starts slowly and quietly, springs to life in a way a mediocre orchestra might not manage.  This one managed tonight.

Only a very small audience showed up, but everyone knew what they had heard.  So did the orchestra.  Smiles all around and a standing ovation for Kogan from audience and orchestra.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Puccini

After needing to get an usher to eject someone from my seat, I enjoyed my second concert performance of Puccini’Tosca in two months, tonight with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra under Eduard Topchjan.

Hasmik Papian (the Vienna-based soprano I have only heard in Yerevan) headed the billing as Floria Tosca, providing a solid strong-willed heroine, who dropped into a delicate “Vissi d’arte” aria when at her most vulnerable moment.  She showed a clear chemistry with the two male leads, Hovhannes Ayvazyan as Mario Cavardossi and David Babayants as Baron Scarpia.  Both of them demonstrated tremendous expression in their voices, even if those voices did not display the same size as Papian’s.  Nevertheless, when it mattered during the second act Tosca-Scarpia duet and the third act Tosca-Cavaradossi duet, the combination excelled.

Maestro Topchjan kept everything together and well-paced, as usual, on the podium.  The orchestra did not sound big in the first act, but it grew throughout, without overwhelming the singers (as can happen in a concert performance).  By Yerevan standards, this was worth a strong ovation, with Topchjan the evening’s true catalyst.

As for my seat, I actually felt sorry for the older couple (the husband was in my seat, so he got ejected), but I did pay for my ticket in a full house, and their tickets were obviously fake (two seat numbers written by hand on a concert flier – someone must have sold this fraudulent paper to a poor unsuspecting older couple, all elegantly dressed up for a night of culture).  The wife gave me nasty looks for a while, but eventually settled down (she tried to make small talk, but we have no common language although neither of us thought to try Russian).  Her husband wandered around and seems to have found some empty seat somewhere else (the usher threw him out of the seat, not out of the hall).  The next two seats between her and the aisle were reserved for the Italian ambassador and his interpreter, making an obligatory appearance at an Italian opera (he went on stage before it began to thank Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic for programming Italian opera), although he seems to know little about opera since he had his interpreter lean over to me after the second act to ask me (in Armenian! I don’t know if she spoke English, so once I figured out what she wanted I answered in Italian) if it was over and time to go.  He seemed slightly disappointed he had to sit politely through another act.

Armenian National Opera

Chukhajian, Arshak II

I may have been one of the few people at the Armenian National Opera tonight who actually wanted to hear the obscure 19th-century Armenian opera Arshak II by Tigran Chukhajian.  Most of the other audience members never bothered to interrupt their conversations long enough to listen (amazingly, I did not hear any mobile phones ring, so at least there was that positive development; on the other hand, some obsessive photographer sat near me with an old camera that had a very loud shutter, and he snapped several hundred photos all night).

Through the chatter, the music sounded like reworked Verdi.  The music was indeed quite pretty, seemingly influenced by Verdi’s Don Carlos (which had its premiere a year before Chukhajian wrote Arshak II), as well as a bit of Rigoletto and Nabucco.  Whether it had the same drama was hard to tell, because I do not speak Armenian and the opera company made no effort to provide plot synopses in any other language.  Davit Babayants starred adequately in the title role, other singers sang their parts with no particularly special (nor poor) distinction, and Karen Lavchyan kept the beat in the pit.  The orchestra usually played in time.  In all, these were inauspicious conditions in which to judge the quality of the work.

My research beforehand turned up more about the history of the opera than about its plot.  Chukhajian (an Armenian from Constantinople) wrote the opera in 1868 in Italian, hoping that using the Italian language would improve its chances of getting performed (his Armenian librettist also did an Armenian-language translation, which is what we heard tonight).  However, only short excerpts were performed in Chukhajian’s lifetime and the score went missing until the 1930s.  Slated for a premiere at the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Russians decided that the character of Arshak II was uncomfortably similar in ruthlessness to Stalin, so some Soviet hacks were assigned to write a completely new plot and an extra hour of new music, and then to pretend it was Chukhajian’s opera.  In the 1990s, someone finally had the good sense to put everything back as it was originally (although using the alternative Armenian libretto rather than the Italian one), and it received its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera of all places in 2001.

The opera’s central character is the historic figure Arshak II, a fourth-century Armenian king who had united a good amount of territory under his rule (his kingdom extended from the Caspian Sea almost all the way to both the Black and Mediterranean Seas).  As far as I could tell, the plot concerns a number of court intrigues, in which King Arshak orders the murders of many of his scheming aristocrats.  Arshak meanwhile appears to have an affair with a woman right in front of the Queen, and after making her watch he summarily has the Queen taken off by armed thugs.  Later, it seems the the Queen has not been killed, but continues to be happily married to Arshak.  Some aristocrat tries to poison Arshak, but the Queen drinks the poison instead, which makes Arshak angry.  He has the aristocrat murdered, and then mourns his wife for a few bars of music before marrying his mistress amongst great public rejoicing.  At least that is my best guess.

Update, 20 March: Decided to try attending Chukhajian’s Arshak II again, in the hope that the audience might shut up and let me hear it.  Very small turnout in the audience indeed meant much less talking.  The verdict: quite a nice opera.  It indeed showed an influence from Verdi.  I am still not clear on the plot, beyond what I guessed before, since they once again made no effort to provide any information in languages other than Armenian and I still cannot find any summary on line.  Davit Babayants once again sang the title role, this time somewhat more aggressively than before (or maybe I could just hear him better with less chatter in the audience).  I have no idea which character went with which name, so cannot identify the rest of the cast, but they were generally good as well.  Karen Lavchyan kept the beat going this time too.

Camerata Salzburg, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven

Pinchas Zukerman and the Camerata Salzburg brought chamber music to the stage of the Khachaturian Hall.  They provided beautiful and delicate playing, but had a hard time filling the large hall with sound, particularly the strings, who foud themselves regularly overwhelmed by the winds, who were certainly not themselves overplaying.

This issue became apparent right from the first piece: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.  Without thicker strings, the dischords Stravinsky intentionally put in the winds stood out more, making this neo-classical work odder than the composer intended.  For Mozart’Haffner Serenade, with Zukerman conducting with his violin, the situation improved somewhat.  Still, Zukerman got a lush sound from his instrument, and it easily left the stage and reached our ears, which contrasted with the subdued Camerata strings.

The balance finally worked after the intermission, for Beethoven’s Romance #1 for Violin and Orchestra.  Essentially a work for solo violin augmented by chamber orchestra, Zukerman took over the playing more assertively, and the orchestra did not need to stand out but rather just had to back him up.  And with their gorgeous playing, they did just that.

Mozart’s Symphony #39 closed the program.  Here, the strings put a little more oompf into their playing, but again the wind section dominated.   An encore Mozart menuetto, scored with limited wind lines, demonstrated that the strings, playing almost alone, could make a bigger impact, even in this cavernous hall.  I just left wondering if maybe they need to perform in a more intimate venue.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Yerkanyan, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky

The Armenian Philharmonic sounded especially good tonight.  Not surprisingly, it did so under the baton of Eduard Topchjan, who continues to be the only person who can get good noises from this gang.  The star attraction this evening, however, was Steven Isserlis, the soloist for the second work on the program: Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto.

This was an unusual composition, mixing as it did a mechanized symphonic backdrop typical of Russian composers from the 1930s, perhaps the darkest decade in Russia’s already dark history, with lyrical solo lines.  If the lines were not fully lyrical, Isserlis made them so.  Isserlis treats the cello as his dance partner, even if he never does leave the chair the two of them spin around in place together.

Preceding the Prokofiev piece, Misteria by Armenian composer Yervand Yerkanyan opened the program.  The music was pleasant enough, in a pseudo-mystic sort of way, but never seemed to go anywhere.  Maybe it was not supposed to.  Maybe that was the mystery.

Almost half the audience failed to return to the Khachaturian Hall for the second half of the concert, and they made a big mistake.  Topchjan led an inspired performance of Mussorgsky’Pictures at an Exhibition in its Ravel orchestration.  A highly-regarded but generally over-rated orchestrator, Ravel exceeded his talents with this work – other attempts to orchestrate the Pictures have not come close.  Topchjan clearly knew every aspect and each instrument’s strength, bringing out lines here and nuances there which often get overlooked, showcasing Ravel’s accomplishment even more.  The Orchestra responded passionately, and without the usual squeeks and missed cues I have gotten used to here in Yerevan.  Tonight the Maestro had them on.

Musicians of the Armenian National Opera Orchestra, Yerevan Opera Foyer

Komitas

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).

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner, Bellini, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein, Bizet, Khachaturian, Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, Orbelian

Tonight’s concert by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Armenian Philharmonic was peculiar long before it started.  Ostensibly part of the annual Yerevan Perspectives Music Festival, it appeared neither on the Festival’s published program nor on the Armenian Philharmonic’s schedule.  But when posters went up around town, tickets sold out.  Only cheap seats were available when I got to the box office, and in retrospect that was a good thing because this concert was not worth more than a 10-dollar ticket.  After the concert sold out (or over-sold out, since some people were literally sitting on every available stair in the aisles and standing to fill every other empty space), black market tickets were going for well above face value.

A list of composers was published on the concert flier, so presumably they knew what they were performing in advance.  But to tell us what was being performed, they hired a master of ceremonies.  Sometimes he was too slow to announce the next selection.  Sometimes Hvorostovsky beat him too it.  Sometimes we just had to guess.  A program would have been a nicer idea.

The first half of the program contained a mix of arias and orchestral overtures.  Hvorostovsky is clearly more comfortable in the Russian repertory, and Aleko’s lament from Rachmaninov’Aleko and an aria from Rubinstein’s Demon remain signature works, combining loving sensitivity with drama.  His singing style may be less suited for German and Italian repertory, at least for tonight’s selections, since his voice can sound somewhat bitter and not subtle in those languages, and this undermined the portrayal in Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star from Wagner’Tannhäuser and in another aria that sounded (I’ll guess) like it came from Bellini’Puritani.  It worked better for Escamillo’s bullfighting aria from Bizet’Carmen, as Hvorostovsky ostentatiously made his appearance in the middle of the orchestral introduction, and then gave a swashbuckling portrayal quite appropriate for the scene (this may also have worked better since French is already an ugly enough language, and a biting Russian baritone will not make that worse).

The orchestra mostly kept pace, under the baton of the Armenian-American conductor Constantine Orbelian, but Orbelian does not have the same control that the orchestra’s music director Eduard Topchjan has.  Topchjan is perhaps the only one to make this orchestra sound good.  Tonight, they reverted down several levels, missing notes and entrances, and failing to allow natural phrasing in the music to flow, making the performance somewhat disjointed.  When Hvorostovsky sang, they thankfully stayed in the background (with some glaring exceptions).  When performing the overtures to Verdi’NabuccoGlinka’s  Ruslan i Lyudmila, Bizet’s Carmen, they just served to keep the audience entertained while Hvorostovsky took a breather.  Likewise for a Khachaturian dance in the concert’s second half.

When I worked in Russia, someone told me that someone famous (unfortunately, I forget who) once quipped that if the Russians have ever done anything cultured, they learned it from the Jews, the Armenians, or the Georgians.  The second half of the concert seemed designed to prove that no matter how well they have been trained, Russians remain tasteless underneath.  I suppose Hvorostovsky selects his own programs, so I will blame him.  His selections in the second half converted the hall into a Russian nightclub, but with the accompaniment scored for full orchestra to ensure it could become as tacky as possible.  He sang a string of Russian-language songs by Russian and Armenian composers (according to the flier: Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, and Konstanin Orbelian – the last being the uncle of the conductor and who came on stage personally to accompany Hvorostovsky and the orchestra on a miked piano, and whose music is as cheesy as it was when I last suffered through it in 2011).  Hvorostovsky used a microphone for these songs (he correctly did not use one in the first half of the program).  Why someone with his voice needed amplification is a mystery, but it just made the sound more seedy and defeated the point of paying to hear him sing live.  His gold chain glittered under his half-unbuttoned shiny black shirt.

Audience reaction was mixed.  Some – presumably the Russified Armenians, of whom there are far too many – clearly loved it and applauded madly.  But a sizable minority had expressions of disgust on their faces similar to mine.  After politely sitting through the scheduled part of the concert, and sitting on our hands during the applause, we waited to see what Hvorostovsky would do for encores.  He began with two differently-scored versions of the Russian nightclub favorite “Dark Eyes.”  When it became clear that the encores would continue in the same manner, lots of us got up and walked out.

Armenian National Opera

Tigranian, Anush

Each time I see an Armenian opera and leave disappointed, my Armenian friends keep telling me to wait until I hear Anush, by Armen Tigranian.  I have missed it by a few days several times, but tonight it was staged at the Armenian National Opera while I was actually in Yerevan.  Unfortunately, once again I left disappointed.  My friends completely over-hyped this opera.  Indeed, it was prettier than any other Armenian opera I have attended.  But it was also just as dull.

Composed in 1912, the opera used Armenian folk music and stories as inspiration.  Set in northern Armenia, it tells the tale of Anush, a peasant girl, caught up in a traditional feud.  Her betrothed, Saro, accidentally insults the honor of her brother, Mosi.  As a result, Mosi hunts down Saro and kills him.  Anush, mad with grief, climbs a mountain and throws herself into the Debed River Gorge.

The costumes tonight were traditional, and the simple set evocative.  Blocking was generally blockish.  And instead of throwing herself into the Gorge at the final curtain, Anush oddly wrapped herself in ivy.  But the staging, although it could have shown more development, was not the problem.

The choral passages were also not the problem.  Lush harmonies stood out as absolutely the musical highlights of the evening – those sections I would gladly hear again.  The problem came that Tigranian’s writing for solo voice or duets did not cut it, dragging on too long and constantly losing flow.  Soprano Anahit Mekhitaryan, whom I heard in Traviata in July, starred in the title role, with her appropriately delicate-sounding voice rising anything but delicately to fill the hall with a pure sound.  Her tenor counterpart, Sargis Aghmalyanperforming as Saro, did not match her.  His voice sounded tired right from the first note.  His acting also looked tired.  However, Baritone Gevorg Hakobyan, as Mosi, did inject drama and passion into an otherwise dull evening, and his duets with Mekhitaryan, though just as boring musically, at least allowed two well-matched and intelligent voices to try to keep the plot moving.

Conductor Karen Durgaryan seemed unable to keep everything together.  Orchestra, cast, and chorus were not always in time.  The uninspiring music dragged maybe more than it should have.  The ballet had no spring.  The folk dances had no lilt.  Even Anush’s never-ending final monologue almost made me want to go on stage and shove her off the cliff myself to get it over with.

To be fair, some of the problems with this opera may have come from external distractions, which ruined the entire atmosphere.  Although the orchestra sat in the pit on time and the show looked ready to start, the curtain took literally 45 minutes to go up.  Why?  The audience kept breaking into applause to try to force the conductor to come out and the opera to begin.  After the opera finally did begin, the audience lost interest and would not shut up all night.  During the second and third acts, it sounded like someone decided it was time to vacuum back stage on stage left, which could only have distracted the performers as much as it distracted me.  At one point I was sure I heard someone sweeping out the loge boxes with a whisk broom.  At other times, it sounded like someone had airlifted themselves onto the building’s roof and started running around.  I don’t know if the opera would have been better without these distractions, but somehow I think they provided more excitement than the music.

Maybe I need to stick to Georgian opera.

Armenian National Opera

Verdi, La Traviata

Verdi’La Traviata tonight at the Armenian National Opera featured as Violetta Valéry soprano Anahit Mekhtaryan, who seems to be a bit of a celebrity here.  Her delicate voice matched the role well, on one hand, but proved big enough to fill the large hall on the other.  The upper registers tended sharp, especially at bigger volumes, but overall she was quite good.

As Alfredo Germont, Hovhannes Ayvazyan matched her well, although his voice sounded a tad tinny.  Arnold Kocharyan performed the role of Giorgio Germont as a sympathetic figure, rather than the necessary bad guy in many portrayals.  He was a character of his time, and meant well, but ultimately showed a human side and felt responsible for Violetta’s downfall (although her illness predated the events).

Staging was mostly traditional, except for some odd stone structures on the back wall.  Two stone figures appeared to be the couple from Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.  Each scene, they moved further apart from each other.  Other rock figures moving around were a devil’s face (I presume), and a lot of detached hands, not to mention two stone columns which melted onto the floor during the final act.  Although weird, the back wall could be safely ignored.

The orchestra sounded quite good, under the able baton of Karen Durgaryan.  Unfortunately, as I have noted before, the huge concrete block that is the opera and concert house is poorly insulated from the outside, so noise leaks in.  This evening, a rock concert was scheduled for a square in front of the opera side of the building, and the floor throbbed with unwanted bass.  During the final act, as Violeta prepared to die, an unfortunately-timed and very audible fireworks display began in the square.  It seems odd that they could not have been bothered to wait ten minutes.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner

For the closing concert of the Armenian Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season, the orchestra honored the 200th anniversary year of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, with a concert of selections (a “Gala,” as they refer to such concerts in the former Soviet space).  Hasmik Papian performed the soprano solos, and Eduard Topchjan conducted.

Papian, born in Yerevan but based in Vienna, has apparently made quite a career singing Verdi, and similar, heroines with her expressive large voice.  Although we only had arias, she clearly knew she had taken the stage and assumed the roles.  Verdi filled the program before the intermission (she sang arias from BalloDon Carlo, and Forza).  But she has recently added Wagner to her repertory, and we got that after the intermission.  Her voice certainly handled Senta in the 2nd Act ballad from Holländer and Elisabeth’s “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser (that particular aria coming across in with a poignant twinkle, since she clearly showed she had made a triumphant return to her hometown’s large concert hall, where she got her professional start in the opera house on the back side of the same building).  When it came to Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan, however, her voice may not yet have filled that role, especially if she had to sing for hours beforehand, but she made an excellent case as an Isolde for the not distant future.  For an encore, she treated the house to a rousing “Ritorna vincitor!” from Verdi’s Aida.  In this case, she herself had returned home triumphant.  The audience roared.

Papian aside, any concert with Topchjan conducting is worth going to.  In addition to the arias, the program also contained a selection of overtures.  The orchestra gave suitably spirited renditions of the overtures to Vespri Siciliani and Forza del Destino, which not only showed off some powerful chorales but also delicate solo work on the middle strings and winds.  I do not know how often Topchjan gets to conduct opera, but he certainly can convey a sense of the dramatic in the overtures.  The question on this hot night, though, was whether the orchestra would whither after intermission when the Verdi gave way to Wagner.  The Prelude to Lohengrin that opened the second half of the concert answered the question: the orchestra sounded even warmer and more lush.  But whereas it handled bits of Lohengrin, Holländer, and Tannhäuser, the next question was whether the Prelude from Tristan might not prove its undoing.  Yet here Topchjan had the orchestra sounding its best, effortlessly navigating the chromatics while keeping the full tone – another question with a good answer.  The thing is, this orchestra still has flaws, but when Topchjan conducts they sound completely different.

I hope they sound this good next season.