Dancers Nazeli Aslanyan, Gayane Varderesyan, Adriana Avanesyan, and Meri Arakelyan

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — On Tuesday, February 8, a group of devotees of Armenian culture ventured out in the snow and cold to St. John’s Armenian Church, to attend a performance about which they knew little.

Local Armenians had received an email only the previous day telling them that there would be an “unexpected visit” by the “Nairi Folk Dance Music Ensemble.” A few had already heard rumors about the group’s visit after having seen Facebook streams of their performances in Florida and elsewhere, but it’s safe to say few locally had heard of the group.

Kamancha player Gevorg Melikyan with Dhol player Arman Ghazaryan

Despite this fact, and despite the fact that St. John’s is undergoing renovations and the performance had to take place in a small auxiliary hall rather than on the main ballroom stage, and despite the weather, the Armenians came out of the woodwork to see the representatives of Armenia’s song and dance culture.

The crowd were skeptical but that skepticism vanished almost immediately once the talented young performers started.

Vocalist Silva Petrosyan sings “Shakhgr-Shukհgr”

The program began with a lively performance by the graceful dancers Nazeli Aslanyan, Gayane Varderesyan, Adriana Avanesyan, and Meri Arakelyan, to the music of Ara Gevorgyan’s Artashat. While it was relatively easy to grab the crowd’s interest with anything that involved Gevorgyan’s upbeat, hand-clapping music, it remained to be seen whether an entire evening’s worth of performances would hold up.

The four dancers departed and four musicians entered carrying their instruments: kamancha, kanon, dhol and duduk. The strains of Sayat-Nova’s Nazani began, and the crowd began to realize that they were in the presence of real talent. Without background music, without a large orchestra of folk instruments, the four musicians playing acoustical instruments were able to create the sound and feel of traditional Armenian ashughagan (minstrel) and folk music.

Kanon player Lilit Petrosyan performs solo

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For the next piece, the ninth and final member of the group appeared, singer Silva Petrosyan, who is a young member of the Armenian National Opera Theatre. Petrosyan delivered an excellent a capella rendition of Gomidas’ (Komitas’) Oror from the region of Agn (also known as “Aghvor es, chounis khalad”). This rare Western Armenian piece was followed by a medley of the well-known folk songs Yerginkn Ambel E and Shakhgr-Shukhgr, also both collected by Gomidas, in which the four-piece ensemble accompanied.

Duduk player of the ensemble, the very young Narek Khanzadyan, stepped forward next for his solo, Khachadur Avedisyan’s Dzaghgepunch, which is very familiar to Armenian-American audiences from its classic recordings by the Soviet Armenian Song and Dance Ensemble as well as the many Armenian-American oud and kanun players who have created their own arrangements of this song. Avedisyan was known as the influential musician who made the kanon an integral part of the folk ensembles in the Soviet Era, and composed various pieces for the instrument, often inspired by Western Classical Music. Generally, performances of Dzaghgepunch use the kanon as the featured solo instrument, but this group chose to feature the duduk instead, which gave a different and interesting effect.

Dance soloist Meri Arakelyan performs Shalakho

It would be difficult to deny that the next performance was one of the most well-received of the evening. Dance soloist Meri Arakelyan, in a bright yellow and black dress, executed a playful interpretation of the ever-popular Caucasus solo dance, Shalakho, in this case with Aram Khachaturian’s music.

Considering that the original Shalakho was a playful dance associated with the Armenian street peddlers of Tiflis (Tbilisi), Arakelyan was successful in bringing out a feminine version of the same concept, as opposed to most female performers who typically interpret it as an ultra-graceful Armenian women’s solo dance while the playfulness is left to male dancers on stage.

Armenian folk music lovers should look out for Arakelyan in the future; her vivid stage presence and terpsichorean abilities are sure to make her one of our great folk dance artists of the coming generation.

The excellent performances kept on coming; next was Gevorg Melikyan, the kamancha soloist of the ensemble. Accompanied by dhol player Arman Ghazaryan, he performed the famous Karabakh dance melody, Uzun Dara. The strains of the kamancha rose through the air punctuated by the beat of the dhol, with skillful rhythmic and melodic effects executed by Melikyan, whose kamancha is sure to be heard more often in the future. Melikyan relates that he is one of only two young people his age in Armenia who know how to play the classic instrument, which is best known as the one favored by legendary minstrel Sayat-Nova in the 18th century.

Another difficult instrument is the kanon, the 72-string zither popular across Armenia and the Middle East. Armenian-Americans may know it as an instrument often played by men in their grandparents’ time, but which is rarely played in the Diaspora today due to being difficult to master and expensive to procure. In today’s Armenia, kanon is favored by women and has become quite popular thanks to its beautiful and ringing harp-like sound.

Lilit Petrosyan is an excellent performer on the kanon, and performed yet another legendary Armenian folk song, Grung (the Crane), for her solo portion. The setlist of this group was beginning to resemble an introductory course on the history of Armenian music, but the inspired interpretation of all the performers breathed fresh life into these classics, and made for a show that was never boring. Petrosyan’s passionate striking of the kanon strings brought to life the plaintive melody of Grung, traditionally the anthem of the Armenian Diaspora.

With most of the soloists having had their turn to shine, the ensemble was only done with half of their program. The musicians next played Dzaghgadz Paleni, a favored melody by Kh. Avedisyan, with the four dancers returning again to the stage to execute flowing feminine movements.

Fr. Armash Bagdasarian of St. John’s thanks the performers

Next, soloist singer Silva Petrosyan was joined by Lilit Petrosyan for the folk song Akh Dnaver. This song seems to have been rediscovered and gained popularity in the last few years, and several artists in Armenia have recorded versions of it. Apparently being a folk song from the Mush/Daron region brought to Eastern Armenia during the Genocide, the melody resembles the well-known Siro Yerk (Ashkharhum Sirel Em Kez), which, however, was an art-song composition of the Soviet Era, popularized by Hovhannes Badalian. To this writer’s knowledge, Akh Dnaver had not previously been performed in Detroit or anywhere in the Eastern US, unless it was sung generations ago by a Mushetsi immigrant. The familiar melodic style of the region is often associated with the descendants of Genocide survivors from Mush, Sasun, and Van, who reached save haven in the Republic of Armenia. The Armenians in the US are familiar with the melody too, not only from Badalian’s popularity in the diaspora, but also from the fact that Siro Yerk was reworked by generations of diasporan performers in both the “kef time” and “Armenian pop” styles. But this older song, stripped of adornment and performed simply with the accompaniment of a single kanon, brought a more poignant folk style to the ears of the listeners.

Silva Petrosyan continued her singing performance with Gomidas’ well known Hoy Nazan, accompanied by the kanon and duduk. Next came dhol player Arman Ghazaryan who executed a drum solo to a recording of Ara Gevorgyan’s Artsakh. The show-stopping virtuosity excited the crowd of Armenian-American music fans who already being fans of the “dumbeg”, were enthused to hear the dhol played with such flair.

Dhol player Arman Ghazaryan delivers drum solo

The phrase “show-stopping virtuosity” can describe Lilit Petrosyan’s kanon playing on the next selection, Khachadur Avedisyan’s Perpetuum Mobile, a solo piece written especially for the instrument. It seemed that Petrosyan could not make a mistake even in such a difficult piece. It was advertised that the performers are the best of the upcoming generation of folk musicians in Armenia, and that certainly seemed true in this case.

The performance ended with the four dancers returning to the floor to execute a medley of Armenian dance steps to the music of Ov Hayots Ashkharh by Ara Gevorgyan. If there was one criticism of this concert, it would be that one too many of the dance selections were performed to the recorded music of Gevorgyan. Upbeat though it may be, the audience, in Detroit at least, would probably have preferred to see the dancers performing to the music of the excellent four-piece folk orchestra.

One of the unexpected positives of having this concert in a small space instead of on stage was that audience members could see and hear the traditional instruments being played practically inches away; it was an experience that cannot be replicated with recorded music nor in most concert settings where one sees this type of music.

The group was brought to the United States by Vitaliy Bezrodnov, director of a non-profit 501 (c)(3) named “Reunite Cultures Fund” or RCF. Formerly known as the Rotary Children’s Fund, the group was started by Bezrodnov and other members of Rotary International, but is not officially affiliated with the service club. Bezrodnov, a native of the Soviet Union, joined Rotary when the group began to reach out to Eastern Europe in the wake of the breakdown of Soviet Communism; subsequently he immigrated to the US where he makes his home in North Carolina.

Aleksan Zakyan is the president of the Armenian branch of the International Delphic Committee, which runs an annual competition called the Delphic Games. The Delphic Games are an international competition for youth in the fields of art, music, and dance, which Zakyan describes as an artistic equivalent to the Olympics. Currently, the movement is primarily active in the former Soviet Republics, and the International Delphic Committee is headquartered in Russia. The Games are slated to take place in Armenia in 2023.

Zakyan assembled the members of the Nairi Ensemble and brought them to America, while Bezrodnov organized their tour, which has taken them throughout several states in the Mid-Atlantic, South, and Midwest. Most of their performances were for non-Armenian school and community groups. Bezrodnov says that a packet of information on Armenia is sent to the school groups in advance so their students can learn about the land, history, and culture before the group visits. In between the group got a chance to see some of the tourist attractions of the US, such as Washington, DC, Disney World, and Michigan’s Henry Ford Museum. The group stayed in the US for only three weeks and do not perform as a group in Armenia; but they have all represented Armenia in the Delphic Games. Therefore, they had very little time to rehearse and make sure that they could play together as a unified ensemble. They were clearly more than up to the task.

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