By Ted AYALA
Less than four years separate the death and birth respectively of the alpha and omega of Armenian music, Vartapet Komitas and Tigran Mansurian, so that they share much in common stylistically and spiritually should not come as too much of a surprise.
Komitas, whose career spanned the closing years of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th, unabashedly embraced the folk and liturgical music of Armenia that formed the heart of his music. Mansurian, in mid 20th century Soviet Armenia, came of age in a country whose musical life was dominated by Aram Khachaturian and his school. Instead, Mansurian looked back to Komitas, crafting a unique idiom that synthesized his cultural roots with the sensibility of the international avant-garde, composing a body of work that manages to sound contemporary and timeless.
Also binding the lives and careers of both of these composers is the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath of decimated families, shattered lives. Komitas, who in its wake was among the very first Armenian intellectuals arrested by the Ottoman Turks, suffered a crippling nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. For Mansurian, the ashes of the Genocide lingered in the air as stories shared by his surviving family members and their friends, and in the profound scars it left on the Armenian psyche.
“I still remember the stories from [my mother’s] childhood],” Mansurian recalled in the program notes for the Lark Society’s performance of his 2011 “Requiem” for mixed choir and strings on Saturday night at the First United Methodist Church in Pasadena. “I knew I had to write this piece someday.”
Rejecting the theatricality of the settings of the Requiem Mass by Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and his friend Alfred Schnittke, Mansurian’s setting is inward-looking, austere, hewing closely to the monodic ideal that has been his guiding light.
The tone of his “Requiem” is not so much overwhelmed by grief as left numbed by it. “After all this, how can it be possible to live on?” it seems to ask.
But there is no bitterness and anger in Mansurian’s work. There is only compassion for the fallen, solidarity with the survivors and, in the brief ray of warmth of its “Lacrimosa” and “Agnus Dei,” hope that their sufferings have not been in vain, mingled with forgiveness and charity.
The Komitas works that opened the concert came from another world altogether: bright, joyful, yet touched with sadness. Sergei Aslamazian’s string quartet arrangements of a clutch of Komitas songs – splendidly played by the young members of the UCLA Vem String Quartet – could be confused for Dvořák, that is had the Czech composer lived under the shade of Mt. Ararat. But the spareness of its textures, the gentleness of its expression is uniquely Komitas.
Vatsche Barsoumian led the Lark Mastersingers, Tziatzan Children’s Choir, and small string ensemble in the Mansurian “Requiem.” The opalescent radiance of soprano Tamara Bevard, one of the vocal soloists in the performance, lent a touch of silvery light to the score. Barsoumian directed a performance of unremitting concentration and power that left no doubt as to stature of Mansurian’s “Requiem,” to say nothing of the virtuosity of the Lark musicians.
Their performances of the Komitas songs, on the other hand, were relaxed, sunny – a fitting testament to the enduring beauty of the composer’s music.