Taking sorrow and pain, clothing it in acceptance, in affirmation of the triumph of life and truth – the music of Tigran Mansurian is something rare in today’s world jaded by commercialism and lucre; a world engrossed in itself, always hurrying to promote itself, always absorbed in its own ostentatiousness, always unable to pause for a moment of silent reflection.
Mansurian’s music, especially his most recent works – a good sampling of which was heard on Sunday at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall in a 75th birthday tribute concert for the composer – is that rare moment of repose in our modern world, that glimpse into a world beyond the reaches of materialism. Silence as much as sound are part of that luminous web that make up his music, a trait also shared with two other composers as different from Mansurian as they are from each other: Anton Bruckner and John Cage.
Whereas they sharply diverge in their musical voices, the guiding philosophy behind their music – a celebration of life, a belief that it extends beyond the boundaries of what we see in the everyday as well as a palpable but indefinable streak of carnality in their music – sees these composers on common ground.
At times, the parallels could be striking. Mansurian’s “Ode to the Lotus” for solo viola from 2012, played by Rob Brophy with a quiet intensity that had the audience holding their breath, was as poignant a reflection on beauty, life and its incipient decay as anything from Cage’s late number pieces; its whittling away of the boundaries of sound and silence, in a very different way, just as audacious. Likewise, the solemn, impassioned “Ars Poetica” for a capella chorus and the austere “Testament” for string quartet recalled Bruckner in its melding of the modern and the ancient, the sense of timelessness the music evokes, and its unbreakable devotion. In Mansurian’s case, devotion in the religious sense and devotion to the cause of Armenia and its culture.
The VEM String Quartet, comprised of UCLA students Nicole Sauder, Nicolette Kocsardy, Stephanie Nagler, and Luke Kim, carefully layered the pithy textures in “Testament” with a mature control that belied their youth. In the “Ars Poetica,” the Geghart Choir under Vatsche Barsoumian brought a near physical immediacy to the score that almost had one expecting the notes to manifest themselves in flesh.
Devotion to Armenia was also the other reason for the concert: the launching of a newly created Armenian music program at UCLA. The VEM Quartet as well as soprano Vanessa Vasquez, who joined the quartet on the program, is scholarship recipients of the nascent program.
In that spirit, two works by Mansurian’s forebears were included: the lush “Three Romances” by Alexander Spendiarian and the 1947 “String Quartet” by Edvard Mirzoyan.
Mirzoyan’s quartet was an especially welcome find. Generally conservative in style though spiked with plenty of Hindemithian counterpoint by way of Vissarion Shebalin’s string quartets that were very popular and respected in the USSR at the time, the quartet was genial, charming. The performance by the VEM String Quartet was robust; a little rough at times – an approach that suits the music well.
Vasquez, who sang the Spendiarian songs earlier this season at the Dilijan Chamber Series, was in even more refulgent voice this time around.
But the inclusion of the other composers only served to highlight Mansurian’s stature, his inimitable voice. Whereas the other composers sound derivative – Spendiarian of Gounod, Drigo, and Verdi; Mirzoyan of Shebalin, Hindemith, and the Prokofiev of the “String Quartet No. 2” – Mansurian, even in his earliest works, is always himself.
In an interview last week (which can be found online at www.cvweekly.com/Leisure), Mansurian said that in his music he always strives for the truth, to never lie. That scrupulous honesty that is the foundation of his work rings with a force and authority that brings to mind the Old Testament. But Mansurian’s music is very much of today, very much New Testament.
Long may he continue to add to it.