Tigran Mansurian

Mansurian in Context: UCLA Honors Composer On 80th Birthday


By Nestor Castiglione

LOS ANGELES  — Since at least the death of Stravinsky, the composer has become an anonymous figure in the West, whether through willful academic seclusion on their part, or neglect by lazy happenstance on the part of listeners. Few people today outside the ever narrowing factions of classical music lovers would probably recognize a John Adams or Philip Glass walking down their street. Quite a number would probably be surprised to learn that the profession of “classical composer” is still alive, even sought after by some.

In some corners of the world, however, the role of composer still carries a powerful aura for people.

As violinist Movses Pogossian mentioned in his prefatory remarks to UCLA’s tribute to the composer last Wednesday, the 80-year-old Tigran Mansurian enjoys the status of celebrity in his native Armenia, with passersby regularly seeking autographs and selfies from him. His reputation there was built upon his neo-Romantic film scores, which seem to stand at a remove from the concert works that have carried his name abroad. Or do they? Something of the sensuality, the earthy directness of those soundtracks can be heard distantly echoing in the masterpieces of his maturity.

Within the same composer there thrives the Armenian, the Russian, and the European cosmopolitan, fusing those three into a single inimitable voice which remains one of the most compelling of our age.

His String Quintet, which was performed in the US for the first time on Wednesday night, took scattered shards evoking Armenian folk musics, and reassembled them in startling ways that were more IRCAM than Ijevan.

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Against a backdrop of works by Schnittke, Silvestrov, and Pärt, Mansurian’s art was revealed to be as much a product of his own originality, as they were of a generational shift felt by him and his peers. Each drew from the liturgical past in order to express things that are startlingly modern in the secular present.

Emblematic of this was Mansurian’s Agnus Dei, one of his most immediately gorgeous chamber scores. A quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano wordlessly intone liturgical words, transcending the barriers of faith, yet quietly proclaiming the that life is more than the sum of what we can see and touch. The bold pianism of Artur Avanesov at the UCLA performance imbued a carnality altogether different from the ethereality of Steven Vanhauwaert’s performance with Dilijan earlier this year, augmenting further this quality of Mansurian’s music being perched delicately between the earthly and celestial.

At the end of the concert, the composer expressed his thanks to the audience via Skype, followed by all of Schoenberg Hall singing Happy Birthday in reply. Mansurian’s 80th birthday is not merely a celebration for Armenian music, but for music as a whole. His art is and will continue to be part of the patrimony of great music, a birthright of any ready listener as much as Beethoven and Brahms.

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