By Ted AYALA
Through a grim cosmic irony, 2015 marks the commemoration of two significant and tragic events of the 20th century.
One hundred years ago this year saw the Ottoman Empire begin its bloody ethnic purge that eventually became known as the Armenian Genocide. Between 1914 and 1918, more than 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks in a heinous wave of violence that also left countless families broken and children orphaned.
“My grandmother was among the thousands of children orphaned,” said pianist Armen Guzelimian. “For the people of my parents’ generation, the Armenian Genocide was something that shadowed over their entire lives.”
The other event being commemorated this year is the 70th anniversary of V-E Day on May 8 – the day in which World War II in Europe finally came to an end. The genocide carried out by Nazi Germany – with millions of Jews, Roma, Poles, sexual minorities and political dissidents murdered in death camps – has its roots in the actions of the Ottoman Turks that preceded it by just over 30 years.
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler said in 1939 while the Third Reich’s ethnic cleansing was deep underway.
Among the countries that bore the brunt of casualties in the European theatre of that war was the former Soviet Union, where deaths mounted into the millions. Dmitri Shostakovich, then at the peak of his fame, composed a number of works directly referencing the war. One of his finest achievements of this period was the “Piano Trio No. 2” composed in 1943.
“My personal feeling about this work is that it doesn’t represent just personal loss,” explained cellist Ruslan Biryukov. “It represents the loss of an entire world.”
That fusion of grief, personal and universal, private and public, spurred its inclusion as the cornerstone of a program commemorating the centennial of the Armenian Genocide to be held at the First Baptist Church of Glendale on Saturday, March 28. Joining Guzelimian and Biryukov will be violinist Roberto Cani, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra.
Shostakovich’s “Piano Trio No. 2” was dedicated to the memory of Ivan Sollertinsky, his best friend and one of the brightest lights in the Soviet intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s. A brilliant musicologist and theatre critic and all-around polymath, Sollertinsky championed the music of Shostakovich and that of Gustav Mahler, whose symphonies had yet to gain wider fame and respect in the USSR. Flamboyantly cosmopolitan and independent-minded in a period that clamped down violently on freedom of thought and expression, Sollertinsky was fluent in several languages and kept his personal diary in medieval Portuguese lest any spies from NKVD (one of the forerunners of the KGB) should happen to find it.
“The second movement scherzo seems to be a portrait of Sollertinsky,” Biryukov said. “You hear the life of this great personality there: his humor, love for life.”
As he neared completion of the trio, grief over his friend’s death began to be mingled with horror over the news that began to trickle into the USSR about the Treblinka concentration camp near Warsaw.
“In the last movement you begin to hear something that recurs again and again in his music – the inclusion of Jewish folk music,” Biryukov said. “It’s this grim dance, like that of a grinning skeleton. It’s very dark, eerie world.”
Guzelimian said this performance of the Shostakovich is his first.
“There’s a graveness, a profound sense of sadness,” he said. “Its sorrow is endless.”
Coupled with the Shostakovich is the “Piano Trio in F-sharp minor” of Armenian composer Arno Babadjanian. According to both Guzelimian and Biryukov, his work was chosen as he enjoyed a personal connection with Shostakovich. The elder composer highly praised the Armenian’s pianism and teaching ability. Both composers were also highly decorated by the USSR.
“They each are representative of their respective traditions,” Guzelimian said. “One a tradition rooted in Stravinsky and Prokofiev, the other in the tradition of Khachaturian.”
“It’s interesting after living in the U.S. for 13 years to perform these two works by Soviet composers,” Biryukov said. “It has a special impact on me.”
Both musicians hoped that the concert would help to pave the way for understanding and peace between different communities and peoples.
Biryukov, who was born in Azerbaijan, is familiar with ethnic clashes. He said that Armenian music was banned when he was growing up in the country’s capital of Baku. But he said that he feels a “closeness” with Armenian culture.
“I really love and admire both Armenian and Azerbaijani cultures,” he said. “My wish is that through our music we can reconcile our differences, that our nations can live in peace, and that we set an example for other nations.”
The concert with the trio of Guzelimian, Cani and Biryukov will take place this Saturday, May 28 at 7 p.m. at Glendale’s First Baptist Church, 209 N. Louise St. A portion of the proceeds of the concert will benefit the Armenian General Benevolent Union and Western Diocese of the Armenian Church. Tickets range from $15 – $100. Student and senior discounts are available. To obtain tickets and more information visit www.glendalephilharmonic.com or call (323) 663-3601.