‘Rare delight’ in Armenian music

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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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  1. I wasn’t present at the concert but I had a chance to hear them in Sydney when they gave a concert in Sydney University’s St. Andrew’s chapel. It was an amazing experience and the sound of the duduk was mesmerising! Truly, the Armenian culture is worth fighting for! I hope the Australian public will realise the wealth of such a culture and support the Armenians by acknowledging the genocide first of all and then by acknowledging the beauty they bring through their music and art.

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