Pianist Sahan Arzruni

Şahan Arzruni Dazzles Audience with His ‘Women Composers’

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NEW YORK — On March 12, Armenian pianist and musical promoter Şahan Arzruni delivered a brilliant concert which featured the work of eight female Armenian classical composers, at the National Arts Club.

Founded in 1898 by Charles de Kay, the National Arts Club is a cultural treasure located on Gramercy Park, whose role it is to promote public interest in the arts and educate Americans in the fine arts.

Between his presentation of each new composer, Arzruni delivered short but informative histories of the women: where they were from, what distinguished their respective compositions and how he was personally introduced to their works. Arzruni used humor to good advantage in relating anecdotes about the women, going back in time to their predecessors Sahakdukht and Khosrovidukht, who both lived in the 8th century and composed liturgical chants.

One particular anecdote which related a story about his maternal aunt, the renowned Bolsahai composer Sirvart Karamanuk, her mother-in-law and a dancing bear, had the audience in stitches.

The overarching message of the concert and presentation however, was more serious: to demonstrate that women have always been central to Armenian culture. In the case of Sahakdukht and Khosrovidukht, Arzruni posits that they may in fact have been the first female musicians in the world.

Alicia Terzian

The Istanbul-born Arzruni, a noted composer, recitalist and ethnomusicologist who attended Juilliard and has been decorated with numerous awards and recognitions, began the two-hour presentation by performing three of Gayané Chebotaryan’s Six Preludes (1948). Born in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, Chebotaryan (1918-1998) was a composer, pianist and musicologist who taught for many years at the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan. A prolific composer for piano, she also created choral works and folk song arrangements. The Preludes run the gamut of musical expression, and as Arzuni explained, “they test the technical, tonal, harmonic, rhythmic, lyrical and percussive capabilities of the piano.” Here, the changes in rhythm and technique were all handled with rare aplomb. Chebotaryan was also a Khachaturian scholar and one could hear echoes of the master in the preludes as well.

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Arzruni then moved on to a delicate piece by Argentine-Armenian composer Alicia Terzian, Ode to Vahan. Born in Cordoba, the renowned Terzian founded Grupo Encuentros in 1979 and is considered one of the world’s foremost musicologists and composers. Interestingly, Ode to Vahan, which is indicated in Armenian mnemonic notation, was commissioned and composed for Arzruni, based on the 8th-century Armenian liturgical chant Zarmanali e ints. (“It amazes me”). Depending on whose account one chooses to believe, the chant was originally composed either by Sahakdukht or by Khosrovidukht. In the more popular version, related by Father Alishan, Khosrovidukht composed the piece while imprisoned, as a lament for her brother Vahan — a genius who was beheaded by his Arab overlords after he converted back to Christianity.

Terzian’s wonderfully deep-toned piece was followed by a presentation of Koharik Gazarossian’s My Child, Your Mother is Dead (1947) and Your Name is Shushan (1947). The author of some 24 piano études, Koharik Gazarossian (1907-1967) was born in Constantinople and studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris with Paul Dukas and Lazare Lévy before performing in some of the world’s great concert halls. Born across the street from building where Komitas lived, Gazarossian was able to copy many of his folk songs and use them as a basis for some of her own compositions.

Mary Kouyoumdjian

And then there was Mary Kouyoumdjian, a brilliant contemporary composer, and her short piece I Haven’t the Words (2020). Kouyoumdjian, the brilliant new music composer behind last month’s operatic adaptation of Atom Egoyan’s film, “Adoration,” at the Sheen Center, is also one of 19 women composers who make up the New York Philharmonic’s “Project 19” and will see her work performed there later this year under the guidance of conductor Jaap van Zweden. The spellbinding I Haven’t the Words, composed of unevenly accented eight notes, was a response to COVID-19, the George Floyd murder and other terrible events altering the global landscape in 2020: the composer was simply unable to express herself verbally in the face of such trauma. As Kouyoumdjian related to Arzruni: “I had no words to describe all of the heartbreak going on but could take the unspeakable to music.”

Born in 1863, Lucy Hazarabedian lived only 20 short years before dying in 1882. The first Armenian woman to specifically write for the piano, she composed the lovely polka The Nightingale of Armenia at the tender age of 16. Lighthearted and jaunty, it charmed the audience.

Arzruni then seemed to pour his entire musical self while performing Karamanuk’s brisk Dance Song (1965). A child genius born in 1912 in Scutari, Karamanuk took lessons from the Ottoman Empire’s renowned Stepan Papelyan, the most eminent musical pedagogue of the time, before studying with Lazare Lévy and Jean Roger-Ducasse.

Koharik Gazarossian

This was followed on the program by Ethiopian-born Sirvart Kazandjian’s Les Clôches d’Ani (1971) which mime the tolling of the bells of the so-called “City of 1001 Churches” located on the Turkish-Armenian border. The piece’s mounting crescendo perfectly embodies the tragic fate of a city laid to ruins by successive invaders.

Arzruni capped off this stellar evening by playing Armenian-born pianist Geghuni Chitchyan’s Sonatina (1986), a wonderfully restrained and melodic piece in three movements that he performed with quick agility. All in all, it was a night to remember.

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