Denise Gentilini

A Voice for the Voiceless: Denise Gentilini Creates Triumphant Armenian Genocide Musical

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By Christopher Atamian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

DENVER — California native Denise Gentilini has always had a musical calling. A child prodigy and autodidact with a taste for Carly Simon, Elton John and old-fashioned love songs and ballads, Gentilini writes some of the most tender lyrics and memorable melodies around. A noted composer who has also garnered three Emmy® awards for film scoring and audio mixing, she also acknowledges John Williams’ early influence on her.

Gentilini avers: “The most difficult part of scoring documentaries is staying out of the way of all the talking while still managing to create themes for the subjects in the film. The most rewarding part of scoring is seeing the emotional response of people — if I can’t make them cry, I haven’t done my job.”

And just as the truly good writer writes with a higher purpose in mind, so too does every truly important musician.

Gentilini has made it her particular mission to give voice to those who don’t have one of their own or who cannot advocate for themselves.

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As she told KDVR Fox’s Lois Melkonian in 2015: “I’ve composed music for the Children’s Hospital on Autism, for the Iliff School of Theology Courage Award … and for genocide awareness. I grew up with my grandparents nearby and always knew that what they lived through and handed down to us was amazing. It made me want to be an activist and do something: to be the voice for the voiceless.”

While this important aspect of her work is indeed commendable, I am also an admirer of her classic love songs and ballads.

The Little Things, a take on the traditional American songbook love song is as complex and reminiscent as the best Cole Porter melody. Written by Gentilini and Lisa Nemzo, and as sung by Lauren Shealy in her expressive soulful voice, it approaches the beauty of I Love Paris. The lyrics themselves tell a story of love using a traditional metaphor of the rose blooming and describes a couple who find they only have each other to count on when their children have grown up:

“My love when springtime comes around each year

I wish for all the things that bring you near

A red rose in bloom holds a promise

Of passion so sweetly renewed

It’s the little things

And if we only knew

That seasons come and seasons go

It’s just you and me

Now that the kids have grown

There are some who might say we’re old fashioned

Cuz we still feel the magic of love

In the little things

That’s what life’s made of…”

The song’s universal appeal lies in the fact that the specific situation at hand extends to all lovers, friends or people who find themselves abandoned or alone. Listen to its tender melody while you drink a glass of dark wine and feel the warmth of knowing that there is someone out there for you to depend as well, even if you are alone — in this case the ravishing Lauren Shealy.

The song is entered in this year’s Grammy competition in Best Instrumental Arrangement with Vocals, Denise Gentilini, arranger.

But it is as a human rights activist and historical conscience that Gentilini makes her strongest impact. She is currently working on the Cindy L. Abel film, “Surviving the Silence,” the untold story of two women in love who helped change military policy. They previously collaborated on “Breaking Through,” about openly LGBTQ elected officials.

“I Am Alive” still

Gentilini’s second documentary film “Conviction” (2006), directed by Brenda Truelson Fox, relates the unlikely story of three peacenik Dominican nuns who break into a nuclear missile silo in Colorado in order to expose American weapons of mass destruction. The film earned Denise her second Emmy® award for film score.

Four years prior, in 2002, Denise had produced and scored the music to “The Handjian Story: A Road Less Traveled.” This first documentary film tells the story of her grandparents, Malvine and Kourken Handjian, whose families perished in the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.

Based on interviews with the two survivors, it is a heart-rending account of hard-working and family-oriented Armenians suddenly ripped away from their loved ones and murdered in the cruelest of ways. Listening to Malvine describe her father’s last minutes before a train takes him away to a concentration camp and certain death is indeed painful.

Using the research that she conducted and footage from “The Handjian Story,” Gentilini has created “I Am Alive,” the definitive Armenian Genocide musical retelling, with lyrics as catchy as “Fiddler on the Roof” and music that ranges from the soulful and sublime to intense, almost electronica-influenced ballads.

The two Genocide survivors, Kourken and Malvine, find love after witnessing intense hatred, a love which lets them begin anew in America and form a family, while passing on Armenian traditions that have endured for many centuries now. The opening We are Blessed takes the traditional Armenian church hymn and raises it to a different level, mixing in a more contemporary, Broadway sensibility. Kapriel Underscore grows from almost murmur-like undertones and builds to an incandescent, but always controlled, rocking climax. You want to dance around your room as you listen to it.

Other hits songs include Bad Bad Men and On the Shores of the Euphrates: We Believed Them. Find our Way tells the story of Hatcho and Kourken after they find unlikely work in a bakery: “Today I am the baker, tonight I’ll dream of girls/Tomorrow I will make simits or candies with swirls…together we will find our way. We are lucky to be alive/That is what matter most.” The song and by extension the entire musical is at turns witty, fun and tragic, borrowing from a diverse music vocabulary that surprises the listener at every turn. The musical ends when Kourken and Malvine meet and finally marry. The title song I Am Alive should bring down the proverbial house.

To date Gentilini has self-funded the productions of “I Am Alive” along with her wife Lynette Prisner, including an initial production at the University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts on April 21, 2015 — just three days before the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. She said, “I wanted to focus on the positive part of my grandparents’ survival and the contributions of the Armenian people to society as a whole. I didn’t want to bemoan the sadness of their history but still tell that history to a society who knew little of this past: the first genocide of the 20th century.”

The latest performance was held in Glendale in September 2016 at the Alex Theater. Originally co-written with Lisa Nemzo, Gentilini continues to update both lyrics and score: “It’s been a wild ride,” says Gentilini, “and I’m not done just yet. After many rewrites and new songs and song updates, I’m creating a ‘concept CD’ featuring all the songs from the musical. The hope is to get interest from prospective producers to invest in a journey that could lead us all the way to Broadway in New York.”

One hopes that moving forward Armenians will support such projects of note that relate to their history to the same extent that Jews, African Americans and other minority groups have in America. This is one fantastic project that all should see — and given Gentilini’s resolve to give voice to the voiceless, I am fairly certain that she will somehow achieve her goal soon, once more.

Listen to Lauren Shealy sing The Little Things:

https://youtube/D1Xx-xhC_bk

 

Learn more about Denise Gentilini at www.DeniseGentilini.com or www.IAmAliveTheMusical.com

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