The VEM Ensemble members with their instruments

VEM Ensemble to Give Concerts in Detroit, Boston and Montreal in May

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WATERTOWN — The VEM Ensemble of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Armenian Music Program at the Herb Alpert School of Music is coming to Detroit, Boston and Montreal as part of a tour sponsored by the Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA) of the United States and Canada, with full concerts on, respectively, May 9, 11 and 13, held with local cosponsoring institutions and organizations.

VEM, which means “rock” in Armenian, has performed throughout North American and Europe, including Armenia, to critical acclaim, and has been featured on various CDs. In its current configuration as a string quartet, the members include Professor Movses Pogossian on violin, master’s student Ela Kodžas on violin, master’s student Damon Zavala on viola, and UCLA alumnus Niall Tarō Ferguson on cello. TCA last brought VEM to the East Coast of the US and Canada in 2019 as part of its mission to support the development of Armenian culture, and if not for Covid, would have accommodated requests for return performances much earlier.

The VEM Ensemble in the shadow of Mount Ararat

Pogossian, the initiator of VEM and founder and director of the Armenian Music Program, explained VEM’s mission: “UCLA is the only university in the world that has an Armenian music program. The goal is to introduce [university] students to Armenian music. Almost always, the VEM members are students of non-Armenian descent. They are getting acquainted with this [Armenian] music for the first time, but they fall in love with our art and become great ambassadors for Armenian culture.”

Among the special elements of the current tour are the guest appearance of pianist Lilit Karapetian-Shougarian with VEM in Boston, where two pieces will be dedicated to the memory of her late husband, Ambassador Rouben Shougarian, and the dedication of the Detroit performance to the memory of the late Dickran Toumajan.

What to Expect

When VEM was in Armenia in March 2023, it gave concerts in Dilijan, Gyumri and Yerevan. “Everywhere we performed, the audiences welcomed us with so much enthusiasm for what we were doing, which created the most special concert atmosphere I’ve personally yet experienced, said Zavala. “Despite the language barrier, the warmth and support of the Armenian audiences at our performances was visceral and I know we left each concert venue with our cups overflowing with emotion at the end of the night.”

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In some instances, reactions were overwhelming. “During our final concert, in Yerevan, I heard an unusual sound behind me,” said Pogossian. “I’ll admit I was a little annoyed, because VEM alumna Danielle Segen was singing the Horzham, the ancient Armenian sharakan, from the balcony. She sounded heavenly, and I didn’t want to be distracted.” But any irritation Pogossian felt evaporated when he turned his head and saw a young woman sobbing uncontrollably.

“She was having a powerful reaction to the spiritual impact of that holy music,” said Pogossian. “I think we all were having our own personal reactions. It was beyond words.”

Three members of the VEM Ensemble with composer Tigran Mansurian (second from left) at the latter’s Yerevan home

Among the composers whose works will be performed during the current tour are Komitas, Khachaturian, Mansurian, Shostakovich, Babajanyan, Mirzoyan, Goharik Gazarossian, Khosroviducht and Svendsen. The VEM members were fortunate to receive personal coaching from Tigran Mansurian during their visit to Armenia.

The VEM Performers

Movses Pogossian

Movses Pogossian is a celebrated prize-winning violinist who made his American debut performing the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall in 1990. He has since performed extensively in North America and Europe as a soloist, sought-after chamber musician, and enthusiastic advocate of new music. Movses Pogossian is the founding director of UCLA’s Armenian Music Program, as well as the artistic director of the critically acclaimed Dilijan Chamber Music Series in Los Angeles. His prolific discography includes “Complete Sonatas and Partitas by J. S. Bach” and solo violin CDs “Inspired by Bach,” “Blooming Sounds,” and “In Nomine.” Most recently, there are “Hommage à Kurtág,” “Modulation Necklace,” a CD of New Armenian Music, and “Con Anima,” containing chamber music of Tigran Mansurian, with renowned violist Kim Kashkashian. He has an upcoming 4-CD set sequel of new music from Armenia called “Serenade with a Dandelion.”

Pogossian has earned his advanced degrees from the Komitas Conservatory in Armenia and the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow and is currently a Professor of Violin at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. A committed educator and community organizer, he participates in the Music for Food project, which gives the opportunity to experience the powerful role music can play as a catalyst for change.

Ela Kodžas

Eager to honor and explore a variety of musical traditions, Serbian-American violinist Ela Kodžas, graduated as a Pi Kappa Lambda Scholar from the Eastman School of Music with a Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance with High Distinction under the tutelage of Renée Jolles. She was also the only student in her graduating year to receive a Certificate of Achievement in Performance Practice, under the guidance of Cynthia Roberts, Paul O’Dette, and Christel Thielmann.

Currently, she is pursuing a Master of Music in Violin Performance under the tutelage of Movses Pogossian and Varty Manouelian at the University of California at Los Angeles, where she is the Teaching Assistant for the Early Music Ensemble and was previously a Teaching Assistant in String Chamber Music.

Kodžas’ interest in historical performance has led her to study with Amandine Beyer, Enrico Gatti, Robert Mealy, Bruce Dickey, and Julia Wedman. Her playing has been featured in the Rochester Early Music Festival, the Boston Early Music Festival Fringe Series, and the Berkeley Early Music Festival Fringe Series, and she has performed with Publick Musick (Rochester, NY), LA Camerata (Los Angeles, CA) and Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra (Long Beach, CA). She is a recipient of an Early Music America Summer Scholarship (2022).

Damon Zavala

Growing up, Damon was always surrounded by music. To his parents and to his family, there was a shared understanding about the importance of music. Throughout his childhood, Damon’s exposure to music weaved between many genres and subsequently he likes to think this early intervention is reflected in his present broad musical interests.

Throughout his high school career, Damon grew into an emerging young violist and violinist in the state of Oregon and broader Pacific Northwest winning most notably two OSAA state titles in solo viola performance. With a desire to see more of the world and to experience a wider range of the music, Damon eventually moved 2000 miles away from home to go to college in Music City.

In Nashville, his principal teachers included Kathryn Plummer and Daniel Reinker. Throughout his time in undergrad, Damon has enjoyed a varied and eclectic musical career. These eclectic interests led Damon to a variety of artistic collaborations around Nashville including: working with singer-songwriters, recording film scores, and presenting pop music productions with Listeso Music Group. In May of 2022, Damon graduated with academic honors from Vanderbilt University with a Bachelor’s in Music.

Presently, Damon Zavala is a violist and violinist based in Los Angeles, California studying and instructing part-time at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA. As he embarks on this next chapter in his studies, Damon is hoping to acquire more students to teach, to collaborate within commercial music industry spaces, and to ultimately share with people a diverse range of passion for music.

Niall Tarō Ferguson

A Los Angeles native, Niall Tarō Ferguson is a cellist, composer, and orchestrator. He is currently an active freelance musician, contributing in equal capacity to the worlds of concert and commercial music.

Niall has participated in music festivals such as the Rencontres Musicales Internationales at the International Menuhin Music Academy, Musique à Flaine, and the Borromeo Music Festival in Altdorf, Switzerland. He has studied with cellists Antonio Lysy, Lynn Harrell, Niall Brown, Ben Hong, and Timothy Loo. In Los Angeles, Niall has performed on many of the city’s premiere contemporary music series, such as Monday Evening Concerts (M.E.C.), Jacaranda Music, and the Hear Now Festival. As a session cellist, he records regularly on motion picture and TV soundtracks, record dates, and reality shows. Niall has performed with artists such as David Foster, Andrea Bocelli, Shawn Mendes, Miley Cyrus, Olivia Rodrigo, Danny Elfman, and many others.

Niall has studied music composition with composers Mark Carlson, Ian Krouse, and Bruce Broughton. His concert works have been performed throughout California and overseas, in such places as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Barnum Hall, the Palau de la Música Catalana, the Aratani Theatre at JACCC, among others. In 2021, his piece Scamper was chosen to be performed virtually for the California Orchestra Directors Association’s All-State High School Orchestra.

Niall has orchestrated on several films including “Bruised” (2021), “Cat Burglar” (2021), “American Factory” (2020 Academy Awards Best Documentary Feature winner), “Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw” (2019), “Ni No Kuni” (2019), and “Kruimeltje” (2020). He has worked as an orchestrator on two of composer Joe Hisaishi’s concert tours: Kiki’s Delivery Service in 2019, and Porco Rosso in 2022. Niall’s string arrangements have also been featured on a number of commercial recordings, most notably on Lukas Graham’s “3 (The Purple Album),”
which was released in October 2018 by Copenhagen Records, “Then We Take the World,” and Warner Bros. Records, and debuted at number one in Denmark.

As of 2019, Niall is a Program Associate with the Asia/America New Music Institute (AANMI), a collective that pursues cultural exchange through modern music. In April 2019 he participated in his first AANMI tour, accompanying founder Chad Cannon and contributing to lectures given at institutions throughout Asia such as the Hong Kong Baptist University, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and The American School in Japan, among others.

Niall received his bachelor’s degree in 2017 from the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, where he studied cello performance with Antonio Lysy, and music composition with Ian Krouse and Bruce Broughton.

Niall is of Japanese descent on his mother’s side, and of Scottish and Irish descent on his father’s. He goes by both his Gaelic and Japanese names, Niall or Tarō respectively.

The Concerts

The May 9 Detroit concert is hosted and cosponsored by St. John Armenian Church at its Cultural Hall (22001 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield MI), with additional cosponsors the Cultural Society of Armenians from Istanbul, and the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School. It starts at 7 p.m., with complimentary admission. For more information, please call 248-505-6159.

The May 11 Boston concert is cosponsored by Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cambridge, MA (145 Brattle Street) and starts at 7:30 p.m., with complimentary admission (no RSVP required). For more information, please call 617-924-4455 or email tcadirector@aol.com.

The May 13 Montreal concert will take place at the Tekeyan Center (825 Manoogian Street, St.-Laurent, Canada) at $20 per ticket. For more information, please call 514-747-6680.

VEM will also have several academic and community outreach events in each of the cities it is touring. These include a lecture by UCLA Armenian Music Program Associate Director Dr. Melissa Bilal, with a mini VEM performance at MIT Building 4 (Classroom 231) on May 12 at 12:30 p.m. cosponsored by several MIT departments, the National Association for Armenian Studie and Research, and TCA, called Intertwined Legacies: Gomidas Vartabed (1869-1935) and Koharik Gazarossian (1907-1967). Dr. Bilal also will be giving a lecture at the Vartan Room, again at St. John Armenian Church on Sunday, May 7, immediately after the Divine Liturgy service, titled “Unearthing Mihran Toumajan’s Life and Work: A Lecture Dedicated to the Memory of Dickran Toumajan.”

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