Dilijan celebrates the music and life of soft-spoken rebel, Tigran Mansurian

By Ted Ayala

The word “rebel” brings to mind connotations of the aggressive, the confrontational, even of rudeness; of a lonely, brash, and, perhaps, not quite likeable anti-social figure willfully cocking a sneer at his audience. None of those qualities would seem to apply to Tigran Mansurian, whose 75th birthday Dilijan Chamber Series celebrated Sunday afternoon. His music inhabits a crepuscular musical periphery where the residues of the Western mid-century avant-garde, Armenia’s liturgical music, and its sensual, almost Latin secular culture are alchemized into a distinctive idiom that is profoundly civilized, profoundly humane.

But in his opening remarks to the audience at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, Dilijan music director Movses Pogossian referred to the composer as precisely that—a rebel.

There was a whiff of more typical notions of rebelliousness in Mansurian’s early Allegro Barbaro for cello and piano from 1964, modeled after Bartók’s eponymous piano work. Beyond its brash surface and its young man’s assertiveness, however, is an undercurrent of restraint, of wanting to turn inwards—a sign of things to come.

Two years later comes the nocturnal soundscape that comprises Mansurian’s early Violin Sonata No. 2—the first 12-tone work composed by an Armenian—and with it the crystalline outlines of the future mature composer are already apparent. That this beautiful, haunting work—played with intense poise and expressiveness by Pogossian and pianist Mark Robson—could be penned by a rebel might be difficult to believe. But in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, where the composer came to maturity, being one’s self was enough to invite official scorn and censure, let alone be considered a rebel.

Yet little of the bitterness and anger that characterizes the work of his Soviet contemporaries such as Alfred Schnittke can be found in Mansurian’s music. Instead, pain and suffering are distilled into statements of plaintive eloquence; into ruminations on the wreckage of the present amongst the ghosts of the past.

That feeling permeates the composer’s 1974 Madrigal No. 1 “A Gift Rose” for soprano, flute, cello, and piano. A sombre, luminous meditation on beauty and its transience, there coursed through the music a vein of autumnal sensuality—captured poignantly by soprano Shoushik Barsoumian, flutist Selpy Kerkonian, cellist Antonio Lysy, and Robson—that at times recalled the melancholy reflections on time’s passing of Kafū Nagai. Had the Japanese author been a composer, and had he come through Yerevan, perhaps he also would have created something like this: A work in which time and place has all the permanence of morning mist, dispersing as if touched by the morning sun’s rays the moment one fixes their attention on it, and lingering afterward only as barely palpable shadows of regret and mourning.

A pair of recent works, Parable for solo clarinet and Lotos for solo viola, were more remote still, even strange. Listening to these works—spectral communions with Armenian folk music and, in the former work, a haunting evocation of the duduk—leaves the listener with the sensation of being an interloper, so intensely private do these works feel. Yet Mansurian even in these late works never speaks in the first-person singular. Even in their quietest moments the music embraces the universal.

His Tovem for 15 instrumentalists from 1979, which Mansurian dedicated to fellow composer Alfred Schnittke, served as the program’s nexus into the soil from which Mansurian grew, as well as its close.

Preceding Tovem at the program’s close were the Scriabinesque Three Art Songs by Romanos Melikian  and Lebanese-born Armenian composer Boghos Gelalian’s Sept Sequences from 1966, also for 15 instruments. The latter work carried with it the distinct flavor of Armenian folk music, though spiked with a generous dose of Krenek and Varèse.

There is in Mansourian self-conscious chasing after fads, no kowtowing to dogmas. He has simply striven to be himself. The superb performances under the direction of Vatsche Barsoumian soared straight into the unvarnished truth that is the lifeblood of Mansurian’s music—expressing pain, but never succumbing to it; suffused with sadness, yet pulsating with strength.

Truly the work of a rebel.