It was clear, even before the concert began, that the enthusiastic, nattily well-dressed, largely Armenian crowd that gathered Tuesday night at Symphony Hall anticipated a extraordinary evening of music and kinship. I almost felt like I was crashing a huge family reunion. It was the friendliest and most happily expectant crowd I’d seen at a concert in a long time. The first balcony and floor were packed.
Armenia has had an extremely tough time of it historically, especially since the genocide of 1915. This concert aimed to redress the most recent heartbreaking humanitarian disaster and help out 120,000 displaced refugees from the community of Artsakh. It was extraordinary to see the devotion of Boston’s Armenian community of kindred spirits.
The concert, featuring the extraordinary Armenian-born pianist Sergei Babayan, paid tribute to Aram Khachaturian’s 120th and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th anniversaries. The mostly youthful Armenian National Orchestra, conducted by Eduard Topchjan, opened with selections from Khachaturian’s “Spartacus Ballet Suites.” Played with enthusiasm, featuring a multitude of instrumental colors, and rarely performed here, it made for terrific opener. Of the three numbers, Variation of Aegina and Bacchanalia, Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, and Dance of Gaditanae-Victory of Spartacus, which was a bit rambunctious, I liked the Adagio best; its lovely oboe solos and a prominent harp accompaniment (some composers know what a harpist/critic likes to hear) gave much pleasure. It was hard not to notice that the concertmaster Karen Tosunyan and most of the strings were youngish women sporting four-inch heels and sparkly tops. The episodes moved by with great commitment, and the audience seemed to be enjoying itself. But the best was yet to come.
The phenomenal Sergei Babayan delivered a sensitive, utterly thrilling performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto (Opus 30), making short work of the sprawling concerto’s technical difficulties. It turns out that this concerto, and Rachmaninoff’s solo piano music, are two of his specialties (check out his take on Rach 3 HERE). I first heard Babayan several years ago on the Celebrity Series of Boston with his former pupil, Daniil Trifonov (who appeared impressively just last week again, on Celebrity Series). But at the duo concert, it was Babayan who captured my attention, and I grabbed the chance to see him live again. While he is hardly a household name, he’s won a slew of competitions, and, to boot, his recent duo partner is the great Martha Argerich. Artist-in-Residence at Cleveland Institute of Music for many years, he has been teaching at Juilliard since 2014. I have resolved never to miss him live, although he is hardly a frequenter of these parts.
The ultra-virtuosic concerto had a particular moment of fame when it was featured in the movie Shine in which the pianist David Helfgott is driven to madness by the concerto’s technical and emotional demands. Rachmaninoff wrote it for his own formidably gifted self, though he had trouble playing his own cadenza, and later simplified it. After the brief nerve-wracking first few bars, in which the orchestra commenced at a tempo decidedly different than the one Babayan was anticipating, he came in and played magnificently, with perfectly executed dynamics and lyricism, his magisterial technique almost was thrilling as his tender musicality…and he had no trouble with the demanding first version of the cadenza. Next time he is in Boston, RUN to see him!
When other mortals would have been soaking their hands post-concerto in ice water, Babayan returned to play an important short and vanishingly quiet encore by Arvo Pärt. According to my laptop genie, Pärt’s mature style was inaugurated in 1976 with this very piece, “Für Alina,” that remains one of his best-known works. It is governed by the compositional system that he called “tintinnabuli,” derived from the Latin word for “bells.” The tintinnabuli method pairs each note of the melody with a note that comes from a harmonizing chord, so they ring together with bell-like resonance.” I loved my first hearing. A very moving, soul-cleansing piece. Thank you, Mr. Babayan.
Rachmaninoff’s wildly popular, soul-on-his-sleeve Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 27 is so beloved because one gorgeous tune just morphs into the next glorious and memorable one. Clarinets must live to play their solos in this piece, and the French horns also notably excelled. I often imagine I am listening to Rachmaninoff whispering in my ear, “If you think this tune its fabulous, listen to this!” The ultra-Romantic 3rd Movement felt sluggish, and balances did not always allow the important solos to bloom in the hall (a problem unfortunately frequent under Topchjan’s leadership).
My publisher reports that the orchestra encored with an armed-for bears take on Khachaturian’s Masquerade Waltz. Topchjan’s insistent rolling arm gestures kept things moving at warp speed and resounding volume.
It takes a huge, committed community to organize and fundraise something as wonderful as this concert. Due to the generosity of the sponsors, all of the revenue from ticket sales supported the humanitarian needs of the people of Artsakh. I love a community that is there to help its own. This concert provided a perfect example of unity and solidarity.