A Blüthner Grand Piano for Gumri

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

POTSDAM, Germany — On September 20, the Gumri music school (“Octet”) will officially celebrate its reopening. And, if all goes as planned, a brand new grand piano will arrive from Germany for its new concert hall, a gift from the Mirak-Weissbach-Stiftung, a recently established foundation.

As co-founder with my husband, I had the opportunity to present the foundation and its project on September 7 at the Lepsiushaus in Potsdam, outside Berlin. The question I addressed was: why should a new foundation choose this as its first big project? Why a grand piano? Why Gumri? And why a Blüthner grand piano?

The idea to set up a new foundation has a family background: both my parents were orphans who survived the Genocide and made it to America. Although economic conditions in the Depression prevented them from attending college, they understood the importance of education and urged us to study hard. As a successful businessman, John Mirak sponsored youth education both in the Boston area and abroad. He supported the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington and set up the John Mirak Foundation, which is active in Armenia sponsoring kindergarten playgrounds or school projects, as well as reforestation efforts.

When my husband and I first visited Armenia in 2008 with my brother Bob (who has taken over direction of both foundations), we visited several of the projects. We also went to Gumri, which along with nearby Spitak, had been almost obliterated in the 1988 earthquake. We had the chance to visit the music school and to meet Director Harytyun Asatryan und his staff. The structure they had been using for classes was a metal shack, a domik. The teachers told us proudly that classes had been suspended only for two weeks after the catastrophe, and that, first in private homes, then in this “temporary” building, they continued to graduate students every year. The young musicians treated us to a concert, performed with seriousness and passion. We were struck by the warm hospitality shown us, and the optimism the teachers exuded. Somehow, sometime — they were confident — the school would be rebuilt.

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Last year my husband and I started a small private foundation to help Armenian youth and deliberately formulated the statute to allow flexibility: its purpose is to provide “support and promotion of children, youth and adults through ideal and financial backing; especially individuals in and from Armenia as well as individuals of Armenian descent who have lost their parents or who have been abandoned by their parents (orphans, street children) should be supported.” This includes sponsoring material aid, such as equipment for kindergartens, orphanages and schools; educational opportunities, through scholarships, or providing living expenses for students; enhancing educational facilities, for example, by contributing instruments to music schools, and the like.

In late 2012 we learned that a group of rock musicians, among others Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and the former Australian tennis champion Pat Cash had launched a Rock Aid Armenia campaign to raise funds for a new school in Gumri, through benefit concerts and special CD’s. Mediamax, the Australian organization “Do Something” and the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) contributed significantly to the effort. The Mardigian family, which has sponsored music education programs in Armenia, tripled the sum raised, and work began on the new construction. The Gumri optimism was well-founded. What was missing were instruments. Provided with a list by Asatryan, we began collecting both donations and instruments.

Shortly before leaving for Armenia last May, I learned from the FAR office in New York that they were just organizing the shipment of a large gift of new instruments from Canada; in short, Gumri did not need our violins and flutes. On arrival in Yerevan we contacted FAR’s Deputy Country Director Margarit Piliposyan, who arranged for us to take our gift to the new music school in Oshagan, which FAR had helped finance. Naturally, we were treated to a concert by the students, featuring piano music and a kanon ensemble.

We arrived in Gumri empty-handed but shared the excitement of Asatryan and his staff with the progress on the building. Not yet completed, the structure appeared very sturdy with thick, earthquake-proof walls, numerous single rooms for private instruction and small ensembles, as well as a large hall for recitals and concerts. Here too we enjoyed a wonderful concert, performed in very tight quarters — a container being used for classes during the construction phase. Then, seated around a table with chocolates, coffee and Armenian cognac, we began to discuss future plans. Asatryan was delighted with the large contribution coming from Canada, but added that the school also needed a grand piano, suitable for concerts. He put it this way: Gumri, though not the political capital of Armenia, is its cultural capital. Then he and his colleagues began to tick off the names of famous poets, composers, musicians, artists and so forth from Gumri. “We want to educate world-class musicians,” he said, “and we would like the best instruments.” The piano he hoped for was a German brand, Blüthner.

In Yerevan, at the Aram Khatchaturian museum, there is a concert grand with the Blüthner-Leipzig logo on it — Khatchaturian was one of many great modern musicians who composed on this piano.

Back in Germany, my husband contacted the firm and Dr. Christian Blüthner, the descendant of founder Julius Blüthner, who runs the firm, immediately grasped the importance of the initiative and proceeded swiftly to cooperate. Part of the costs were covered by donations, including a contribution from the John Mirak Foundation, and many small and large gifts; the rest has been financed through a loan to be repaid through donations over two years.

Blüthner is one of the oldest piano manufacturers in the world. It was founded in Leipzig in 1853 and can look back over a successful, moving history. By 1903 the company had earned several awards and received prizes at 12 world exhibits, gaining international renown. In 1943 a bombing raid destroyed all but the foundation walls. In the post-war period, as part of East Germany, the firm was expropriated and expanded especially into countries of the Soviet bloc. Contact with China remained intact even after German reunification in 1990 when the family was able to repossess it.

Now the piano is on its way to Gumri. Some have raised the question, whether such a project is appropriate. Isn’t it a luxury item? And if they need a piano, why a Blüthner grand? Why not a less expensive model from China? The answer lies in the role music has always played in Armenian culture. The saying goes that there are more pianos in Yerevan than TV sets and anyone strolling through the city can hear music from open windows. Even a small hotel my husband discovered had a piano in the dining room and employees would go to play it whenever they had time. In the Diaspora too: even my parents, who had no musical education, took it for granted that the children should learn to play an instrument. Without knowledge of the theories by Friedrich Schiller or Wilhelm von Humboldt, they knew that musical education was an important element in the aesthetic and moral development of character.

For Armenians, music, language and religion have always played a central role in society and in shaping the national character — a theme discussed at the Lepsiushaus event. Scientific Director Dr. Rolf Hosfeld had invited two special guests to participate: Prof. Ashot Hayruni, from the Yerevan State University, currently on a lecture tour in Berlin, and Anna Maria Pammer, a renowned Austrian soprano living and working in Berlin. Hayruni spoke of the “magical power” of music for Armenians, with reference to the impact of Armenian songs on orphans in Aleppo after the Genocide. Pammer, who has performed in the leading concert halls and opera houses of Europe, as well as in music festivals, is the co-founder and artistic director of the Austro-Armenian Music Festival. On the basis of her experience in Yerevan, Gumri and Vanadzor (in 2009-2010), she could confirm the importance of quality instruments for students. Only the biggest concert halls or opera house had excellent grand pianos, and some in need of repair had been sent to Germany. A piano donated from Japan was so highly appreciated, it was kept under lock and key, “treated like a sacred object.” She also stressed the importance of new buildings for music schools, to ensure control over air quality and temperature, crucial to preserving instruments. Pammer, who has a repertoire stretching from Medieval works to contemporary pieces, underlined the wide variety of genres in Armenian compositions (including contemporary), generated by an extremely old continuous musical tradition, and prof. Hayruni explained the special role of Komitas.

For more information, visit http://www.m-w-stiftung.org

 

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