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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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).

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 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.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Grieg, Bruckner

Last week, the Armenian Philharmonic canceled a concert when soloist Shlomo Mintz got sick.  Although I was looking forward to hear Mintz perform live, I think I was more disappointed in the end that I would not get to hear Eduard Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic perform Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, after having been surprisingly overwhelmed by these forces combining on Bruckner’s 4th in February.

So, to my delight, posters went up around town yesterday advertising a late addition to the concert schedule: a performance tonight, with the Grieg Piano Concerto and… Bruckner’s 9th.  As soon as I saw a poster, I ran as fast as I could to the box office and got a ticket.

I do not understand how they do it.  Bruckner cannot be a staple part of their repertory.  A functional but not great orchestra normally would not get this right.  But obviously God himself, captured in Bruckner’s music, has entered their skins and produced yet another tear-inducing performance.  The fact that the orchestra is flawed (strings were shrill, winds missed their attacks) actually made the performance more moving.  This is far from a perfect orchestra, and Bruckner was a very humble man, who saw himself as an imperfect servant of the Almighty.

Topchjan clearly had the orchestra well rehearsed.  They took a slow tempo, probably deliberately careful because the work was unfamiliar, but a slow tempo works for Bruckner.  They played the music as they found it, simply, honestly, and passionately.  The first movement built a wonderous tower, the scherzo bit the heart, and the adagio left the earth and climbed to heaven.  The acoustics in the Khachaturian Hall – not a huge hall, but very tall – took the sound right up to the high ceiling and brought it back to earth transformed and transformative.  Bruckner did not live long enough to complete this symphony, and left three movements behind as his testament, dedicated to none other than “the dear God.”  I think the orchestra even managed to play the dedication tonight.

I have heard better orchestras perform this work, including in 2013 already.  But did they really understand it so well as these Armenians?  I do not cry often at concerts.  I don’t give too many standing ovations either.  Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic provoked both for the second time this year, both times after performing Bruckner symphonies.

The concert opened with the Grieg Piano Concerto.  This was workmanlike.  Topchjan does make this orchestra sound better than anyone else, so he could keep the performance lively, flowing, and full of exciting dynamic swells.  Tigran Alaverdyan, the soloist, made playing the piano look effortless (I had an excellent view of his fingers).  Unfortunately, the Khachaturian Hall’s Steinway piano is not so good – something I’ve noticed before – and sounded rather tinny.  This was a piano to use to accompany someone, not to use as a solo instrument.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Sibelius, Bruckner

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.

Yale Alumni Chorus and Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

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’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.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Tschaikowsky

The Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra performed a concert version of Tschaikowsky’Nutcracker in the Khachaturian Hall this evening under its music director Eduard Topchjan.  I am told they like playing for Topchjan, and it certainly sounded like it.  His technique is abrupt, but I suppose the orchestra understood what he wanted to accomplish, since this is the best I have heard them this year.  The brass were once again excellent, and the strings improved – though not exactly lush, they did produce a more full sound than under other conductors.

The performance was actually not billed as a concert performance, but rather as a “literary-musical composition with complete performance of the ballet music.”  This meant that they provided narration and sets, even if no one danced.  The sets were odd, but harmless.  An enormous ball was suspended over the orchestra, and they used some form of projection to make it appear to rotate, with scenes from the ballet seemingly painted on it like an enormous Christmas tree ornament.  Behind it, a giant curtain obscured the entire back of the stage, and an artist in a booth somewhere finger-painted abstractly on a screen which was then back-projected onto the curtain.  The floating abstract shapes his fingers produced added nothing, but also subtracted nothing.  The bigger problem arose from the narration: actually, not the narration, per se, which was fine; but rather the language choice.  The narrator told the story in Russian.  However, many people brought their children, and this meant that parents (who would have had mandatory Russian classes in school back in the Soviet period) had to translate for their children while the orchestra played.  That avoidable stupidity (the narrator could easily have spoken Armenian) disrupted the enjoyment of the performance, since, as noted, the orchestra sounded quite good tonight.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Beethoven, Brahms

The Armenian Philharmonic, conducted by Ruben Asatryan, gave a concert tonight that I probably should have skipped.  Workmanlike, but dull.

Marine Abrahamyan performed as soloist in Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto.  She hit all the notes.  The old Steinway piano, though in tune, sounded like it had gone past its use-by date, since it had an excessively sour tone.  Apparently they have a new concert piano at the Khachaturian Hall, but Abrahamyan prefers this one because the keys are broken in and easier to play.  After the applause, she subjected us to a series of encores.  Every time we thought she had finished and the orchestra started to sneak off the stage, she reappeared and started playing again.  Maybe with a better-sounding instrument she might have achieved something (although one of her encores was an ugly modern piece by an Armenian composer which probably sounds better on a bad piano).  Eventually her annoying behavior stopped and we got to take a walk about for intermission.

After the intermission came Brahms’ First Symphony.  Convinced that there was nothing new to say after Beethoven, Brahms only put notes on paper cautiously.  Although some of his works can be pleasant enough, no one can consider Brahms original.  It therefore takes charismatic performers to add excitement to Brahms, something that may have been too much for tonight’s band to provide.  The Armenian Philharmonic’s winds were once again good, particularly the woodwinds, and overall the orchestra made it through the piece without problem but also without providing any enlightenment.