Redefining ‘Classical’


It’s good to know that in an age when job security has become passé rock stars can still find work even if they’re no longer considered hip.

In fact, they can take comfort in knowing that instead of having to play at car wash openings or cavorting with groupies who may not be so young and hot anymore but sure know their way around Social Security and AARP, they can instead turn to the dignified career of classical composer.

Paul McCartney, Sting, Elvis Costello, Jon Lord and Jonny Greenwood – the list of former rock idols taking a stab at being a latter-day Beethoven is long – and getting longer. (It gets to be where you start wondering whether Gwar or Dragonforce are working on a “symphony.”)

Now add to that list Serj Tankian, former member of System of a Down. With an “Elect the Dead Symphony” already under his belt, he seems to be turning his focus increasingly to classical music.

Or at least what former rockers think classical music is.

Because classical music is hard to define. It is an admittedly pretty idiotic catch-all term devised in the late 20th century that encompasses an extremely wide and disparate range of genre and styles – think of labeling rock, country, blues, jazz, and – why not? – flamenco as “rock” because they all happen to use guitars and guitars tend to be synonymous with “rock” in a lot of people’s minds.

Classical music is also more than just empty, pretty noodling with violins.

Not that Tankian’s “100 Years” for chamber ensemble and small vocal group, which was played by Dilijan Chamber Series on Sunday, isn’t “classical music” (which, again, is hard to define). But aside from a dour, ponderous tone, what does classical music mean to Serj Tankian?

Martinu’s “Memorial to Lidice,” Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 8,” Hartmann’s “Concerto Funebre,” the last movement to Moroi Saburō’s “Symphony No. 3” – all these works artfully, powerfully render homage to the victims of persecution, of injustice, of the machinistic horrors of wars.

Tankian’s work, though his heart is in the right place, is ultimately only a grab bag of Hollywoodesque clichés. One also wonders how much of the piece is actually Tankian’s given that another composer, Artashes Kartalyan, actually did the grunt work of arranging the piece – which was fine.

Bookending the Tankian were works of Bruch and Tchiakovsky, the Dilijan players reveling in their chocolatey richness.

Sisters and guest performers Ani and Ida Kavafian joined the proceedings, playing with terrific sweep and gusto the “Six Duets” by Kristapor Najarian, a piece fragrant with the air of the Armenian countryside.

Gusto and sweep also marked their performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” playing with capital “R” Romanticism.

Dilijan’s performance is the reason why one ventures out to the concert hall in the first place. Unforgettable.