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.

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 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 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

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.