At the conclusion of Seminar at Yerevan State Conservatory, with composers Tigran Mansurian and Artur Avanesov (Head of Composition)

From Westwood to Yerevan: UCLA’s VEM Ensemble a Friend and Ambassador for Armenian Music


By Néstor Castiglione

LOS ANGELES and YEREVAN — Arriving at the airport, exhausted and cramped after a 21-hour flight with more turbulence than my admittedly timid sensibilities could handle, I quickly made my way to the nearest bathroom in order to take a breath for a moment, and maybe splash some water through my hair. As I leaned over the sink and gratefully rinsed my face under the cool running water, my ears suddenly took notice of the faint strains of a familiar tune wafting from outside. Drying myself off, I stood there silent for a moment trying to pick the musical thread out from the tapestry of bustling noise in which it was threaded. What was it? Picking up my bags I headed out to customs, hoping to get a better hearing of the music. As I stood in line, against a controlled din of public announcements blaring overhead and the constant stamping of passports by customs agents, the music finally revealed itself: It was the Waltz from Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade, soon followed by the Adagio from Spartacus.

It was nearly 2 a.m. when I finally made it through Zvartnots Airport. Welcome to Armenia.

Music is practically ubiquitous wherever one walks in Yerevan. Street performers with their duduk and k’anon interspersing folk melodies with arrangements of Khachaturian and Babadjanian, melismatic pop songs blaring out from passing Moskvitches, simple nursery songs from playing children. In the world of classical music, nations like Germany, France, Austria, Russia, and Italy are for general audiences virtually synonymous with the genre. Armenia, despite its size and population, not only swings an oversized fist in the annals of classical music — bequeathing countless composers, instrumentalists, singers, and musicologists — but makes a convincing argument that it, too, ought to be recognized as one of those nations who have made a sizable and distinguished contribution to music.

“We are caught between Europe and Asia,” Artur Avanesov, arguably the most talented of today’s young Armenian composers, told me over dinner in Yerevan last month. Amidst the merrymaking and the glasses clinking from our fellow guests, he continued: “I think our love of music is both a survival tactic and coping mechanism. In this part of the world, Armenia sought protection, escape by aligning itself with European culture.”

Yet its cultural achievements, while a well-known source of national pride to Armenians, remains underappreciated internationally. But a pioneering program at UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music is working on changing that.

VEM at Garni, Armenia

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Last month, I followed five young musicians, each of them UCLA students, and all of whom but one were embarking upon their first trip to Armenia: Danielle Segen, Ji Eun, Aiko Richter, Morgan O’Shaughnessey, and Jason Pegis. Together they formed the latest iteration of the VEM Ensemble, the brainchild of violinist Movses Pogossian, who serves as the director of UCLA’s Armenian Music Program. Founded in 2013, the program and its flagship musical group is dedicated to performing and disseminating the Western classical music of Armenia. Over the past six years, VEM alumni have presented Armenian music in locales across North America and Europe. On this particular journey they will be taking a handful of days to prepare for and present a performance of music by Schubert, Webern, Komitas, Tigran Mansurian, Artashes Kartalyan, and Avanesov in Yerevan at the Aram Khachaturian Museum. The Kartalyan score, Tekeyan Triptych, was commissioned by the Tekeyan Armenian Cultural Association, which was founded in 1947 to preserve the Armenian diaspora’s link to the heritage of its homeland and to promote its culture.

“Being here in Armenia makes me [feel] this music a lot more,” Pegis, the ensemble’s cellist related to me one morning while we all were heading to the Temple of Garni. “Seeing the country, visiting [Tsitsernakaberd], I feel this music, its duality of joy and sadness, in a way that I could not before.”

Danielle Segen performs “Dear Loved One” by Alan Hovhannes

“You realize when you’re here that the suffering of the Armenians wasn’t just a story,” added mezzo-soprano Segen, who was seated just ahead of me. “You can face the sorrow of their past in a very personal way.”

Driving a few days later along the winding roads of Vayots Dzor, our vehicle clutching tenuously to the reddish, rough-hewn cliffs which overlooked the verdant valley below, my eyes were drawn time and again to the grave markers that dotted the side of the road. The neophyte traveller soon realizes that the memory of death, an experience often compartmentalized and sealed off from quotidian life in the United States, is never very far away in Armenia. Pogossian tells us over dinner one night his own harrowing legacy of loss, his grandfather being the sole survivor among his family who perished under the sword of the Ottoman Turks. The next morning, I pulled into Khor Virap in Ararat Province. At the foot of a hill, beneath the gaze of this ancient church whose chapel dates back to the seventh century, lay a small graveyard with an Armenian flag somberly flapping overhead. In this arid patch of land, fenced off from the road that leads to the monastery, were about two dozen tombstones, some of them etched with the portraits of the departed; they were soldiers who had died in the line of duty during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. An old woman in black, her mourning veil blowing over her face, fluttering in the air as if greeting a figure that was just out of sight, stood alone silently over one of those black markers, a clutch of fresh flowers resting next to it.

“I lived among all this history, these people, I knew the ones with names, without names,” Mansurian said through his assistant, Chaghik Arzrouni-Chahinian, one windy afternoon inside his modest Soviet-era apartment, gesturing passionately as he spoke, surrounded by portraits of his wife and friends, now gone. “I loved all these people who are no more with us. Each one who contributed even one stone to [Armenian] culture. Unfortunately, it is a history that is vanishing more and more. One must always be attentive to the truth of our culture, our music, and to its memory.”

The night of Thursday, June 13 was a warm one in Yerevan, crossed over as it was by a heat wave and the lingering humidity of a thunderstorm that had passed through earlier that week. It tends to be the case that people in Southern California stay home during such weather, preferring to sit before the blast of their home’s air conditioners. The audience in the Hall of the Khachaturian Museum, however, were made of hardier stuff, packing the space in anticipation of that night’s program, fanning themselves vigorously with flyers and program notes before the concert began. In the days of rehearsals leading up to that night, the VEM Ensemble had painstakingly worked to realize these scores, bringing them into focus, cleaning their textures, until they finally emerged in the performance like a noble portrait swept free of centuries’ encrustation of dust. Their playing was alert, pliant, and deeply expressive.

VEM Ensemble with the bust of Aram Khachaturian at the Museum

Segen, who was the soloist for Mansurian’s Four Hayrens from 1967, drew impassioned applause from the audience. Though Armenian is a language which is still mostly unfamiliar to me, her diction seemed remarkably authentic.

“Beautiful voice and no foreign accent!,” one older woman in the audience told me afterwards.

“I actually don’t know the language either,” Segen confided with a smile the day before. “But I learned to sing it phonetically.” She expressed her gratitude to Vatsche Barsoumian, director of the Lark Musical Society in Glendale, for his patient and insightful coaching in singing the Armenian language.

The program was a wide-ranging one, bridging the tensile Romanticism of Schubert and early Webern, to the knotty play of wit and gnarled lyricism of Avanesov, and concluding with the grave beauty of Mansurian. A roar of bravos and claps met the VEM at the program’s conclusion, which resulted in a number of encores, including an arrangement of a song from a Babadjanian film score which drew such an approbative eruption from the audience that it could well have been heard all the way in Glendale.

At a well-earned post-concert dinner for the VEM at a Tumanyan Street restaurant called Mer Gyughe, Mansurian led an emotional toast to the young musicians from the United States.

“To hear somebody like Mansurian say that to us is kind of amazing,” O’Shaughnessey would tell me later. “That’s a blurb you can put on your resumé!,” he laughed.

“Witnessing from the audience what you have done for Armenian music, your beautiful playing, your friendship for Armenia,” Mansurian declared, “all I can is say is that we love you and please come back.”

Thanks to the efforts of UCLA, Pogossian, and the many friends of Armenian music in Southern California, and the diligent cultural ambassadors of the UCLA Armenian Music Program, the day may come sooner than later when listeners in the Americas and Europe may come to think of Yerevan the way they now do of Vienna or Berlin: As another crucial and indispensable nodal point in the continuing history of classical music.

To see Mansurian’s closing remarks at the end of the concert, click

To see Segen perform Komitas’ Oror (Lullaby) outside of Saghmosavank, visit

To see a performance of the Tekeyan Tryptich, visit



Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: