YEREVAN — “If music be the food of love, play on!” Shakespeare’s Duke of Orsino, who could not get enough if it to surfeit his appetite, may have been a hopeless romantic, but he had a point. Music is the food of love, and it nourishes not only the heart but also the soul. Nowhere is this more evident that in Armenia, where a rich musical culture pervades the land, in a manner and to an extent that reminds one of Germany. The country is far smaller, covering a land area the size of one German federal state, and its population of 3 million a fraction of Germany’s 80 million. But the role of music in education and daily life is indeed comparable.
During a trip to Armenia in early April, my husband and I were able to witness this once again, as we visited four music schools that our small foundation has been associated with.
Gyumri, the cultural capital of Armenia and its second largest city, has more than one music school, and boasts a long tradition of musicians, composers and graphic artists. At the Octet School, destroyed in the 1988 earthquake and rebuilt in 2013 thanks to the efforts of Ian Gillan and his Deep Purple music ensemble, together with the Mardigian Foundation and the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), we met Manya Hovhannisian, the new director, who told us there are 224 students receiving instruction there this year. In fact, they were in the last stages of preparation for a concert of instrumental and vocal music.
Days later we visited the music school in Dilijan, about 120 kilometers from the capital. Margarit Piliposyan, regional director of FAR, accompanied us to the school, which is the regional hub for music education in the province (marz) of Tavush. The State Art College of Dilijan provides instruction at two levels for children and youth: a seven-year program offers after-school lessons for children, and older students who choose to major in music can attend a four-year college, which will prepare them for a teaching career. With 178 pupils in the first level and 63 in the upper level, they are coordinating work in 15 music schools in the region. By equipping young musicians to teach others, they are a motor force in the educational process.
Thanks to the efforts of FAR, the concert hall has been renovated and equipped with 300 new chairs. But, as it was not yet completely ready, the concert we attended was held in an older concert hall. The teachers and students organized the event as a gesture of gratitude to those who had sponsored the purchase of badly needed new instruments, 37 of them, jointly financed by our foundation and FAR’s Galust Galo Fund.
We were treated to an afternoon of wonderful music, performed by youngsters from both levels of instruction. We marveled at an original jazz piano piece performed by the young composer herself, and heard a soprano with an Armenian lullaby, followed by another vocalist singing a Puccini aria. It was amazing to see how early these children begin! A very small lad walked confidently onto the stage and, with a huge voice that defied credulity, treated us to a lively rendition of an Armenian folk song. His classmate, about the same size, had to adjust the piano stool downward to be able to mount it. With concentration, he placed his hands on the keys, fluttering gently through a piece from the classical repertoire. A teenage girl carried on stage one of the new instruments, a majestic kanon, and played with virtuosity and emotion, accompanied on the piano. Concluding the program was a trio of girls on kanons, followed by a brigade of drummers (some with newly acquired instruments) who moved from one rhythmic escapade to the next with the ease of a kaleidoscope. And yes, we were right to recognize one of the drummers as the talented young pianist…