VEM Ensemble Tour to Detroit, Montreal and Boston Is a Triumph

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WATERTOWN — The VEM Ensemble of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music inspired and moved large audiences in the hundreds in Detroit, Montreal and Boston as it completed the first part of its spring 2019 North American tour organized by the Tekeyan Cultural Association of the United States and Canada (TCA). Each stop included community outreach sessions at local Armenian schools as well as a primary performance. Each stop included a premiere of the Tekeyan Triptych, composed specially for VEM by Artashes Kartalyan as the result of a grant from the Tekeyan Cultural Association.

The VEM Ensemble performing at Holy Trinity Armenian Church (photo: Aram Arkun)

The Vem Ensemble, established in 2013 by violinist and UCLA Prof. Movses Pogossian, consists of the graduate student Vem Quartet, in residence at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, plus a talented and experienced mezzo-soprano. Vem means “rock” in Armenian, symbolizing the strength and power of this ensemble to bring to life music written by prominent and emerging Armenian composers. The quartet is the cornerstone of the newly created Armenian Music Program at UCLA. UCLA lends instruments to several of the musicians. It is noteworthy that Ji Eun Hwang’s violin is the “Duke of Alcantara” Stradivarius, a 287-year-old instrument that at one point was owned by Napoleon Bonaparte!

In addition to Triptych, performances usually included pieces from Aram Khachaturian: Valse, from the “Masquerade Suite”; Dance of the Rose Maidens from the “Gayane” ballet; and Lezginka, from the same ballet. Gomidas (Komitas), born Soghomon Soghomonian, was represented by a number of favorites, arranged by Sergey Aslamazyan as Miniatures for String Quartet: Al Ayloughs (My Red Shawl), Karun A (It Is Spring), Ambel A (It Has Become Cloudy), Chinar Es (You Are A Poplar Tree), and Gakavig (Partridge). There were several melancholy pieces, including Geghuni Chitjian’s Manushakin (To the Violet), Edvard Mirzoyan’s They Say, and Tigran Mansurian’s Testament. Alan Hovhaness’s Yar Nazani (Dear Loved One) is a story of love. The work of one non-Armenian classical composer was included—Franz Schubert’s Quartettsatz, D 703.

Detroit

In the Detroit suburb of Southfield, the TCA Greater Detroit Chapter together with St. John Armenian Church Music Guild hosted the VEM performance on the evening of March 27 at the St. John Church Recreation Center (see accompanying article by Harry A. Kezelian III). This was the first performance of VEM in Michigan, which happens to be a place dear to Prof. Movses Pogossian, as he lived here formerly. Most significantly, this was the world premiere of the Tekeyan Triptych.

St. John pastor Fr. Aren Jebejian spoke words of welcome after which Pogossian presented the background of VEM Ensemble. He gratefully spoke about the assistance of TCA Central Board president Edmond Y. Azadian. He presented the varied backgrounds of the members of the ensemble, none of whom are Armenian. Violinist Ji Eun Hwang is from Korea while second violinist Aiko Jimena Richter is from Baltimore. Violist Morgan O’Shaughnessy, who has his own website, is from northern California but works as a professional musician in Los Angeles, and cellist Jason Pegis studied in Montreal’s McGill University before coming to UCLA for a doctoral program. Mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen, who travels the world from her base in Los Angeles, amazed the audience with her excellent Armenian pronunciation and expressive singing. For brief biographies, see the Mirror-Spectator of March 2.

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The excitement of the audience reached its peak when Pogossian invited Nora Azadian, honorary chairman of the TCA Greater Detroit Chapter, who personally knew Vahan Tekeyan, to the stage. She is well known for her recitations of Tekeyan’s poetry. Despite her advanced age, she recited Yes siretsi (I Loved) to great applause. The performance concluded with Edmond Azadian’s words of praise of the ensemble and expression of thanks to the two organizing committees.

VEM Quartet performing Khachaturian’s Dance of the Rose Maidens at their first outreach concert for students at AGBU Manoogian School in Detroit, MI

The VEM Ensemble also presented a brief performance to students at the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School in Southfield, Michigan at noon of the same day.

VEM Ensemble with leaders of the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School and Tekeyan Cultural Association in Detroit after the outreach concert

Montreal

Montreal Tekeyan event organizers with the VEM Ensemble (photo: Berj Merdjanian)

The VEM Ensemble arrived in Montreal on March 28 to be hosted by the TCA Montreal Chapter as part of the latter’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations this year. The next morning the group visited the Armenian General Benevolent Union Alex Manoogian School and were received by Principal Chahé Tanachian. They offered a short but informative performance at the Arshavir and Nadya Gundjian Hall (where the eponymous Dr. Arshavir Gundjian, a member of the TCA Central Board, was present) with explanations provided by Pogossian. The AGBU Manoogian students surprised VEM with a performance of their own, led by Artur Margossian.

VEM Ensemble performs at Montreal’s Tekeyan Center to a packed crowd (photo: Berj Merdjanian)

After a tour of snow-covered wintery led by TCA Central Board member Arto Berge Manoukian, the group gave their main performance in the Tekeyan Center’s Haroutiun and Sima Arzoumanian Hall to an audience of several hundred.

VEM playing selections from Gomidas’s “Fourteen Songs” for students at the Armen-Quebec Alex Manoogian School in Montreal

 

Boston

In Boston, the VEM Ensemble gave a full performance on March 31 at Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Greater Boston, which served as local cosponsor along with the newly reorganizing TCA Boston Chapter. TCA Central Board Executive Director Aram Arkun introduced Pogossian, who immediately established an intimate rapport with his audience. He explained the origins of the VEM Ensemble, introduced its members and provided the necessary context to understand the music being performed.

The VEM Ensemble at Holy Trinity Armenian Church, with Aram Arkun and Fr. Vasken Kouzouian at far right

As at all the prior performances, the audience reaction was powerful and immediate. The beautiful and mystic atmosphere of the church combined with excellent acoustics amplified the effect of the music.

Cohost Fr. Vasken A. Kouzouian of Holy Trinity in his closing remarks marveled at the virtuosity of the performers and expressed pride in hearing Armenian music performed at such a high level by non-Armenian musicians. He exclaimed that if these were for the most part graduate students, he could not imagine how much greater they would be later on in their careers and invited them to come to Boston again. Impressed audience members repeatedly have been asking the organizers to bring the VEM Ensemble back soon.

The VEM Ensemble performing at St. Stephen’s Armenian School with Professor Movses Pogossian in the background (photo: Aram Arkun)

VEM conducted a community outreach visit to St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School on April 1. Principal Houry Boyamian introduced the ensemble and Pogossian to the students. As they all understood Armenian, he switched quickly to this language and made the meeting a lively one, frequently asking the students questions and providing explanations. At the end the students got to be the ones asking him questions. Boyamian thanked VEM and TCA for the wonderful afternoon.

Professor Movses Pogossian making a point to the children at St. Stephen’s Armenian School in Watertown (photo: Aram Arkun)

TCA members took the VEM members to see the Armenian Museum of America that same day, where they were given an impromptu tour by Director of Finance and Building Operations Berj Chekijian. Afterwards, they were taken to see Armenian Heritage Park, and ended their Boston trip at Faneuil Hall.

Tekeyan Cultural Association supporters with Professor Movses Pogossian, fourth from left, St. Stephen’s Armenian School Principal Houry Boyamian, fifth from left, and the VEM Ensemble

Considering the high quality and great impact of VEM and the immediate and powerful demand of the audiences for return performances, the Tekeyan Cultural Association announces that it will try to arrange another tour when feasible. In the meanwhile, there are still two more concerts sponsored by TCA in the Los Angeles region which can be enjoyed by West Coast audiences, at Abril Bookstore with the TCA Los Angeles Chapter on April 27 at 7:30 p.m. (for tickets, call 818 243-4112 or go to itsmyseat.com/abrilbooks) and at the TCA Beshgeturian Center (1901 N. Allen Ave., Altadena, Calif.) on May 19 at 6 p.m. (free admission).

VEM is also going to Armenia in June and recording the Tekeyan Triptych for a CD soon. Even more ambitiously, there is a movement to turn the UCLA Armenian Music Program into an endowed center promoting Armenian music in the United States and abroad on a much greater scale, and encompassing traditional folk music and other genres besides classical. Armenian community financial support for this would be most helpful.

For more video clips of VEM in performance, see the Armenian Mirror-Spectator’s YouTube site.

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