Dudukist Mher Mnatsakanian of Boston

CLEVELAND — The Covid-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone. Among those who found this time the most difficult have been religious communities whose member were not able to congregate in person, and musicians and music fans who have been unable to experience the joy of live performance, as well as the Armenian communities around the country which have not been able to come together to mutually support one another in the typical way during this time of need.

The “Songs of Hope” concert, offered on March 28 by St. Gregory of Narek Armenian Apostolic Church after this year’s Palm Sunday Divine Liturgy, took care of all three missing elements  for many Cleveland-area Armenians.

Organized by Deacon Ari Terjanian, organist and choir director of the church, the purpose of the concert was in his words, “twofold — to give our community hope, and to encourage people to come back to church. It was also a way to celebrate Palm Sunday.”

In his opening remarks, Terjanian reflected on the “immensity” of the fact that those present were together in person. For most, he said, it was the first time they had been to church in a year; the first time they had seen their Armenian friends from the community as well as been able to find spiritual fulfillment in the church setting. For the musicians, it was the first time they had been able to perform for a live audience in a year, and for the audience, it was the first time in a year they had been able to hear live music. Terjanian noted that the purpose of the concert was to spiritually uplift the audience as well as promote Armenian culture. He added that while music has been available through the pandemic on streaming platforms and even streamed live performances, nothing can replace a live performance. Musical performance takes at least two people, he said – the player and the listener. The musician is stirred to greater heights by the responsiveness of the audience and the audience is inspired by listening to the music, which is the reason for playing in the first place.

Haig Hovsepian and the Almas Quartet at the Cleveland “Songs of Hope” concert

Terjanian stated in an interview that he was overwhelmed by the positive response when he first reached out to the performers. They all agreed to do the concert on a strictly charitable basis and only one person who was asked to play had to be replaced by a stand-in, which was only due to fears of public gathering on that individual’s part.

The star of the show was undoubtedly Mher Mnatsakanian of Boston, who is quickly becoming the most in-demand duduk player on the East Coast. He has a solid relationship with the Cleveland community and especially its pastor, Fr. Hrach Sargsyan, a fellow native of Armenia. Mnatsakanian had first come to Cleveland two years ago for a concert celebrating the 150th birthday of Komitas Vartabed, the day before he appeared in concert in Chicago. Recently he also participated in a New England area concert to raise funds for Artsakh. Another top notch performer was violinist Haig Hovsepian, also from Boston, but who has been living in Cleveland the past few years, where he is in his senior year at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Hovsepian has formed a group, the Almas Quartet, composed of fellow students with whom he performs in public and who performed with him on the 28th. (The quartet’s violist was unable to attend due to Covid-related concerns.) Those who performed were Emera Gurath, Violin; Claire Peyrebrune, Viola; and Lydia Rhea, Cello. (The Almas quartet also performed the following Wednesday in an AGBU-affiliated benefit concert for Artsakh and Armenia). Terjanian himself served as MC and accompanist on piano and organ, as well as performing a piece of his own. Finally, St. Gregory of Narek Church’s Narekatsi Choir joined the concert as “backup singers” on a few of the selections. The participating choir members were Maral Antonyan, Soprano; Naira Azatyan, Soprano; Louise Demirjian, Alto; Anita Arpajian, Alto; Serop Demirjian, Tenor and Peter Zahirsky, Bass.

Dudukist Mher Mnatsakanian of Boston

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The concert’s content was wonderfully surprising to this writer. The set opened up with an arrangement of Amazing Grace for duduk, string quartet, piano, and chorus, by Martin Ulikhanian. The classic American hymn gave an opportunity for the duduk to showcase its fabled calming tones, which have so often been likened to the human voice. In Mnatsakanian’s hands, the duduk sounded like a mother gently singing this familiar melody as a lullaby to her child.

The next portion of the concert featured the Almas Quartet performing the well-known string quartet arrangements by Sergei Aslamazyan of four pieces from the Komitas repertoire. The ever-popular Al Aylughs (The Scarlet Handkerchief) was masterfully interpreted by the string quartet, followed by Chinar Es (You Are Like a Plane Tree), Yerginkn Ambel A (The Sky Is Cloudy), and Gakavig (The Little Partridge).

Perhaps the most moving part of the concert came as dudukist Mher Mnatsakanian came back in front of the audience to play a group of songs usually interpreted by piano or organ and vocal. Terjanian accompanied on organ while the vocal lines were performed on duduk by Mnatsakanian. The talented musician began with a soul-stirring rendition of Amen Hayr Soorp from the Magar Yegmalian version of the Badarak, which again showcased the duduk’s ability to mirror the human voice, with all the smoothness and microtonal inflections particular to Armenian liturgical music. Continuing with the program were Es Kisher, Lousnag Kisher (Tonight, Moonlit Night) by Komitas, which Terjanian accompanied on the piano, and Parsegh Ganatchian’s Oror (also known as Koon Yeghir Balas (Sleep My Child), perhaps the most well-known Armenian lullaby) which was given an odd 19th-century feel by Terjanian’s use of the organ.

Group photo from Cleveland “Songs of Hope” concert

Dudukist Mnatsakanian was given a break as pianist Terjanian performed his one solo piece, Prelude no. 24 in D minor by 20th century Soviet-Armenian composer Eduard Baghdasaryan. Terjanian notes that Baghdasaryan is little known in the West, but in his opinion deserves as much recognition as Komitas and Khachaturian. The performer’s regard for this composer was evident in his heartfelt rendition of the piece, which to an untrained ear was perhaps reminiscent of the music of Babajanyan.

The duduk returned to center stage with three more pieces from Komitas. The first, Dzirani Dzar (Apricot Tree), is almost always presented as a vocal piece; the duduk is perhaps one of the few instruments that could do justice to the song’s melodic line. Mnatsakanian took the opportunity of the very Eastern nature of the melody to interpret it with a little more freedom and improvisation than is usually the case in concerts of this type; he played from the soul rather than note for note, and the ability to do so and stay within the feel of the music is a difficult skill which Mnatsakanian has mastered. The same approach was taken to the next song Hov Arek, Sarer Jan (Let the Winds Blow, Dear Mountains), and this time the Eastern Armenian spirit predominated in Mnatsakanian’s interpretation. The finale Habrban was played much in the sprightly style of the dance tune which this melody originated as.

Finally, the audience was given a “surprise” in the form of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah for duduk, string quartet, and voices, arranged by Martin Ulikhanian. The soulful number combined the North American and Armenian cultures magnificently with this rendition placing the duduk center stage again with Mnatsakanian’s semi-improvisational style, in fitting with both rock music and Armenian folk, as well as the classical backing of the string quartet and choir.

The concert concluded with Fr. Hrach Sargsyan giving a message of hope, as well as defiance to the powers of the world, exclaiming that Armenians will never give up, despite all the enemies that want them destroyed. Weaving together a message of Christian faith as well as the slogan “next year in Shushi” — with reference to Armenian ancestors who have given their lives for the nation — Sargsyan gained a loud round of applause from the crowd.

The Cleveland Armenian community, formed of a tight knit group with diverse points of origin were brought together by the concert and the powerful emotions in the room were also palpable for anyone who viewed the performance as it was streamed on social media.


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