‘Rare delight’ in Armenian music

Review: “The Mystic, the Monk and the Muse,” Concert 6, Canberra International Music festival Fitter’s Workshop, May 11 Reviewed by Judith Crispin

IT was a rare delight to hear the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble playing music by Georges Ivanavich Gurdjieff/Thomas de Hartmann and Komitas yesterday at the Fitter’s Workshop.

Emmanuel Hovhannisyan, Levon Eskenian, Lusine Grigoryan

Emmanuel Hovhannisyan, Levon Eskenian, Lusine Grigoryan

In a program titled The Mystic, the Monk and the Muse, Armenian musicians – Emmanuel Hovhannisyan (duduk), Levon Eskenian (piano), and Lusine Grigoryan (piano) – gave meditative and prayerful performances of sacred music from the Silk Road. This music, influenced heavily by Apostolicism and Yezidi traditions, sits at the cusp of composition and ethnomusicology. Many of the works contain fragments of folk music collected by both composers from around the Caucuses.

On a Steinway, against the backdrop of a pink-filtered window opening onto the Kingston Foreshore, Eskenian opened the concert with the ascetic Meditation and Orthodox Hymn for a Midnight Service by the Armenian mystic Gurdjieff. Always subtle and artistic, Eskenian’s exploration of the tonal possibilities of the instrument was spellbinding – from sombre calls to prayer, to hand-stopped strings at the hymn’s end. The appearance of the duduk, masterfully played by Hovhannisyan, was for many people a revelation. Beginning with a solo piece by Komitas, The Fowl of the Air (Hávoon, Hávoon), Hovhannisyan produced an extraordinary palette of tonal colour: eastern ornamentation – mordents, trills and turns – sustained notes swelling from nothing and returning back to pianissimo. Hovhannisyan and Eskenian, playing their own transcriptions of Gurdjieff, maintained a good sense of ensemble and balance despite the very live acoustic of the Fitters Workshop.

Lusine Grigoryan

Lusine Grigoryan

The latter part of the program introduced Komitas’ multi-movement work for solo piano Seven Dances for the Piano: Manushaki, Yerangui, Unabi, Marali, Shushiki, Het u araj, Shoror played by a very glamorous Lusine Grigoryan. Her subtle pedalling, sparkling trills and delicate touch throughout the work held the audience in thrall. Transcriptions of Komitas by Grigoryan and Hovhannisyan were understated and elegant. All accomplished players, these three Armenians could have held the stage playing any repertoire and yet there was an indefinable quality to their performances – something, perhaps, to do with the reverent air of the compositions or the exotic quality of the duduk.

The audience at the Fitters' Workshop

The audience at the Fitters’ Workshop

Hearing the strange and beautiful tones drawn from the duduk by Hovhannisyan, the jawed vibrato, accented grace notes and slides, I wondered if Gurdjieff had been right about his “objective music” – a music that translates into profound inner experience in the right context. I was also reminded of the fact that this year, the centenary of Anzac, also marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide – still officially unacknowledged in this country. Perhaps concerts like this will remind us why Armenian culture is worth fighting for.

All photos by Judith Crispin.


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