IN: Reviews

The Armenian Popular Will Triumphed

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Researching the life of Aram Khachaturian calls for one to gaze into the cracks of a fractured legacy. Born in the Caucasus, the composer embraced the ideology of the Soviet Union with unapologetic vigor. Indeed, most of his works provided the very model for socialist realism: they are tuneful, saturated in the sounds of folk music, yet consistently bent towards a triumphant finish that, more than his contemporaries Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich (the May Day Symphony excepted), symbolized the triumph of populist will.

Yet even during his lifetime, Khachaturian leaned heavily on his Armenian heritage in crafting some of his most beloved pieces. The Armenian people continued to return the affection, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, by elevating him into a figure that, paradoxically, symbolizes Armenian independence. 

That spirit of nationalistic fervor set the tone for the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra’s visit to Symphony Hall this past Wednesday as part of the ensemble’s first U.S. concert tour. With an all-Khachaturian program in tow—music seldom heard in Boston—the orchestra treated us to a rip-roaring good time, as did the Armenian National Symphony in its Kachaturian-plus concert at Symphony Hall last November. [reviewed HERE]

This is an orchestra that can turn up the heat and have fun while doing it. Sergey Smbatyan the orchestra’s Founder, Artistic Director, and Principal Conductor didn’t so much lead as simply lay back and manage his considerable forces. The strings played with a bright, biting tone that pierced through the powerful waves of the woodwinds and brass. But the seismic urgency rarely resulted in an unbalanced sound. If one wanted a little more plushness to their approach in Khachaturian’s languid moments, the sheer vitality of this performance at least made you sit up and listen carefully. 

The familiar Violin Concerto generated such edge-of-the-seat panache from the onset. Sergey Khachatryan, the major-prize-winning soloist, made easy work of the bustling lines and zipping scales. Through it all, his tone cut against the orchestral forces, at times even brusquely. Only in his upper register did his tones tip towards lightness. 

But Khachatryan could whisper just as fervently as he roared. His duet with the solo clarinet at the close of the first movement coiled in faint echoes. In the second movement, he channeled silvery distance, milking the Andante, along with Smbatyan, of all its marked sostenuto. 

The conductor took enough liberties to let the ensemble express its accompanying lines with soulful zeal. Gentle rubatos, managed in ideal tandem between Smbatyan and the soloist, also lent palpable vigor. Everything charged forth with frenzied exuberance in the finale that brought the audience to its feet, inducing the violinist to encore with the exquisitely high-placed, supernally quiet “Apricot Tree” by the Armenian monk Komitas.

Selections from Khachaturian’s popular ballets, Gayaneh and Spartacus, filled out the rest of this program. It’s a wonder why these works aren’t performed more frequently in Boston, at least outside of pops-style concerts. For they showcase the orchestra in all its splendor; folk-like themes capture the verve of a village band, and the lyrical passages, when played well, can swagger gleefully. 

The Armenian band revealed all the pent-up excitement that these scores comprise. “Dance of the Rose Maidens” from Gayaneh ebbed and flowed limpidly. So too did the “Lullaby,” where a solo oboe wept gently against the shimmering strings. “Aysheh’s Dance” brooded gently in complement.

The “Introduction and Dance of the Nymphs” from Spartacus simply danced. Smbatyan drew a sweeping intensity from “Scene and Dance with Crotalums,” where the cellos sang in earnest against the fiery orchestral passages. The “Variation of Aegina and Bacchanalia” whirled violently from its hammered accents. The “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia” built the tension like lapping waves before culminating in the triumphs of “Dance of Gaditanae” and “Victory of Spartacus.”

A brief opener in Triumphal Poem set the evening in motion by reveling in Khachaturian’s feel for effortless grandeur. Hooked from the start, the enthusiasts even began clapping before the music ended. 

Smbatyan and the orchestra rewarded their enthusiasm with three Khachaturian encores, all played with zest and, above all, a feel for their sheer fun: the Waltz from Masquerade, the evergreen “Saber Dance,” and “Lezginka,” in which Smbatyan made a theatrical departure from the podium to allow the players to revel in their conductorless chops.

Aaron Keebaugh’s work has been featured in The Musical Times, Corymbus, The Classical Review, Early Music America, BBC Radio 3, and the Arts Fuse, for which he writes regularly about classical music. A musicologist, Aaron teaches at North Shore Community College in Danvers and Lynn.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for this review. I was so impressed by the mastery of the orchestra and its conductor. The Khachaturian Violin Concerto is a sophisticated piece. The second movement was particularly complex and intricate. Would be good to have this concerto performed more often. Mr. Khachatryan, the violinist, was exceptional. His encore is also worth mentioning. A (most likely) Armenian tune played with stunning delicacy and sensitivity. Thank you again.

    Comment by Tanya B. — June 29, 2024 at 6:36 pm

  2. We’ve learned that the violinist encored with “Apricot Tree” by the Armenian monk Komitas.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 1, 2024 at 12:51 pm

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