By Lena Ishkanian, CAAPA Treasurer
On the evening of Sunday, September 7, 2008, Torontonians were honoured with a rare and memorable concert event featuring an international cast of performers spanning the globe to include Armenia, Canada and Italy.
The Canadian Armenian Association for the Performing Arts (CAAPA) under the patronage of His Eminence Bishop Bagrat Galstanian, Primate of the Armenian Holy Apostolic Church of Canada, in collaboration with Reverend Archpriest Father Zareh Zargarian and Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Toronto (HTAC), hosted the premier event honouring the 80th Anniversary of the foundation of the Parish of HTAC. The Gala Concert was performed to a sold out audience of more than one thousand patrons and showcased an outstanding caliber of talent and artistry.
The George Weston Recital Hall of the Toronto Centre for the Arts became the meeting ground for the fusion of Armenian, Canadian and Italian cultures and talents, where brilliant artists from different continents and genres all joined together to celebrate the universality of art and music. The concert event showcased the preeminent National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia (NCOA), featuring The National Ballet of Canada’s renowned Principal Dancer Greta Hodgkinson and First Soloist Etienne Lavigne, as well as internationally celebrated Saxophone Soloist from Italy, Federico Mondelci.
The evening began with the outstanding National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia who graciously added Toronto to its North American William Saroyan Centennial Tour. The tour was launched to celebrate legendary American-Armenian Author and Playwright Saroyan, who published over 4,000 writings with critical acclaim and recipient of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award over his distinguished 47 year career.
The NCOA wowed the audience as they lead the program with classic renditions from Corelli, Mansurian, Komitas / Aslamazian, Arutunian and Shostakovich to name just a few. Under the illustrious leadership of Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Aram Gharabekian, the music came alive with soulful emotion, energy and passion, highlighting the masterpieces of Armenian and international composers alike.
From Baroque Chamber piece of Henry Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor arranged by Benjamin Britten and Arcangelo Corelli’s Badinerie, to Arutunian’s Dance of Sassoun whose work is influenced by melodic characteristics of Armenian folk music, to contemporary compositions such as David Haladjian’s Music in the Shade, the orchestra presented a remarkable program of exciting diversity and harmony and gave stirring performances.
A fine example of the variety of music portrayed that evening, was a lighthearted performance by NCOA of Leroy Andersen’s upbeat Jazz Pizzicato in the first half of the concert program. This was Andersen’s first composition which premiered in 1938 and became an instant hit. The piece was played by plucking the strings with the fingers, producing short and percussive sounds, rather than sustained. Andersen, one of the great American masters of light orchestral music and distinctive miniatures, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to the recording industry, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for his ingenuity. The carefree character of the piece was further exemplified when Mr. Gharabekian stepped away from his podium and gave free reign to the musicians. This allowed the audience to connect more deeply with the orchestra, charmed by the Conductor’s nuances and expressions and the ensemble’s playful disposition.
Compositions by Komitas, founder of modern Armenian classical music, were honoured by NCOA’s renditions, the music resonating deeply in the hearts of the audience that evening. A pinnacle figure in the history of Armenian music, Komitas was a priest, composer, singer, music ethnologist and musicologist. His creations Yerkinkn ampel a (The Sky is Cloudy) and Al Ayloughes (My Red Handkerchief), arranged by cellist and prominent figure of Armenian Chamber Music Sargis Aslamazian, were performed with heartfelt sentiment, and a quintessential symbol of traditional Armenian folklore.
In stunning contrast to the first half of the program was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo, a dramatic opening to the latter half of the concert and vividly performed. Shostakovich was one of the leading composers of the 20th Century and recognized worldwide as one of the ‘titans’ of Soviet music (along with Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian).
To watch Mr. Gharabekian flawlessly direct his orchestra was awe-inspiring. The orchestra was a cohesive instrument under his enchanting wand, directed with breathtaking technical precision, dynamic range in expression and panache, often guiding his musicians with just a glance. His sophistication, passion and charisma was riveting. The NCOA family of 24 musicians were extraordinary, each demonstrating their outstanding abilities, which combined showcased one phenomenal union with the highest level of professionalism.
Sahan Arzruni of Armenian News Network/Groong eloquently states, “Mr. Gharabekian possesses an outgoing personality, with a profound musical knowledge to support it. He conveys his artistic choices with discipline, but also with loving care. He makes the music breathe, move forward, communicate.”
The NCOA also accompanied The National Ballet of Canada’s Principal Dancer Greta Hodgkinson and First Soloist Etienne Lavigne, who honoured patrons with elegant and moving Pas de Deux performances from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Leaves are Fading from Antonin Dvorak’s ‘Cypresses.’
The Pas de Deux, a duet where ballet steps are performed together, represents one of ballet’s most venerated and enduring forms. The elegance and “illusion of fragility” of Ms. Hodgkinson coupled with the poise and power of Mr. Lavigne, with the melodic sophistication of the orchestra, was an extraordinary event to behold. To witness this radiant American-Armenian Prima Ballerina, and her husband, the very talented Lavigne, was a true honour. Mr. Lavigne’s strength and stature was compelling, and together with Ms. Hodgkinson’s graceful and delicate disposition, their partnership was beautiful and harmonious.
The exquisite Hodgkinson, acclaimed for her virtuosity in the technically and artistically challenging dual principal role of the white swan Odette/black swan Odile, from the renowned and irreplaceable classic ballet Swan Lake set to Tchaikovsky’s haunting and powerful score, gave the audience a taste of her dazzling technique and tremendous ability dancing the role of Swan Queen Odette, with Lavigne as Prince Siegfried, in the symbolic ‘White Swan’ Pas de Deux. The ballerina’s performance was vulnerable and ethereal, and she melted into Siegfried’s arms with relentless passion.
Etienne Lavigne was impressive and energizing as the Prince in love. He was magnetic in his stance and stage presence and utterly captivating with his dynamism and talent. He partnered Ms. Hodgkinson with “rapt attention and affect” and possessed a noble and dramatic disposition.
Antony Tudor, one of the giants of twentieth-century choreography (along with George Balanchine), was a principal transformer of ballet into a modern art, and the master of the “psychological” ballet. Tudor created 56 ballets, of which The Leaves are Fading was the most significant of his later works and received its world premiere in 1975. This season’s performance of The Leaves are Fading, presented by arrangement with The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, commemorates the Centennial of the late Antony Tudor’s birth, 1908-2008.
Antonin Dvorak’s ‘Cypresses’ for string quartet (together with other chamber music for strings), Tudor’s choice for The Leaves are Fading due to its romantic and gentle tone, was particularly fitting for Ms. Hodgkinson and Mr. Lavigne to perform because the couples dancing in this ballet are deeply in love, “both in the setting and in the mood of the piece.” As per August 2004 ballet-dance magazine, “In an interview with Marilyn Hunt, Tudor commented, “In ‘Leaves are Fading,’ all the couples who dance together are in love, one way or another” and the ballet explores the themes of romance and the passing of life…a reflection by the principal female character on her life and loves as she passes into the fall of life.”
Greta Hodgkinson and Etienne Lavigne captured the true spirit of this ballet as envisioned by Tudor, with their lovely and poignant performance, dancing with tenderness, fluidity and balance, displaying great ardor in their movement. This contemporary repertoire, exemplifying the artists’ versatility and range, added an uplifting element to the evening and enthused the audience who responded with a fervent standing ovation for the pair.
Famed Saxophonist, contemporary music innovator, Conductor and Professor, Federico Mondelci was the final artist to perform that evening and left a lasting impression with his vibrant performance and seemingly effortless brilliance. As one of the “pre-eminent performers of the classical repertoire for saxophone…and a major performer of contemporary music and innovator of instrumental technique,” Mr. Mondelci brought the vastness of his experiences and innumerable skills to his pieces that evening.
Mondelci performed to Michael Nyman’s Songs for Tony, Roberto Molinelli’s ‘Two Pictures from New York’ and Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Suite, the latter two featuring NCOA Pianist Ella Melik-Husian. He captivated the audience with his virtuosity, elegance, and ease, reflecting the sheer love of his instrument and his unwavering passion. Mr. Mondelci’s range and ability was astonishing. The expressiveness of his performance was unlimited. As per Il Giornale D’Italia, Rome, “…the saxophone has become a new messenger in the hands of Federico Mondelci…the eloquence of his magic instrument opens a path straight to the heart…”
Molinelli’s Four Pictures from New York, a concerto of four movements written for saxophone and orchestra, was presented in two images that evening. The ‘Tango Club’ movement of ‘Two Pictures from New York’ was exhilirating, written in the style of Argentenian tango as a tribute to the grand master of ‘nuevo tango,’ Astor Piazzolla. It served as an attractive showpiece for astounding Saxophone Soloist Mondelci and the magnificent NCOA. The composition was vivacious and left the audience yearning to dance, with captivating romanticism and beauty highlighted by Mondelci’s spectacular virtuosity and the gorgeous orchestral accompaniment.
Four Tangos by Piazzolla were performed as the Tango Suite, including ‘Milonga del Angel’ (a type of South American dance). Mondelci, revered as a remarkable innovative talent, arranged and re-weaved Piazzolla’s music with creativity and sophistication, with devotion to the Tango’s essence. The audience was drawn in by the tremendous performances of the artists, who formed an elegant and intense unity. The visionary Astor Piazzolla transformed the indigenous Tango of Buenos Aires “into a vehicle for musical expression free of labels and stereotypes” and incorporated jazz and classical music elements, revolutionizing the traditional tango.
There was also a surprise performance by Mr. Mondelci at the end of the concert event that took place during the encore, leaving the audience amazed, enthralled and inspired. Mondelci and the NCOA performed ‘Amen Hayr Sourp,’ a refined, beautiful hymn from the Armenian Divine Liturgy, composed by Magar Yegmalyan. Mondelci’s interpretation and performance of the composition was stunning and yet respectful of the origins of the piece itself. This luminous performance moved the audience and event organizers, and left everyone even more appreciative of his tremendous talent. The hall resounded with the storm of applause.
The Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Toronto 80th Anniversary Gala Concert presented an exciting opportunity to partake in both the diversity and universality of art. The cultural beauty, elegance and soulfulness of the evening’s performances could not be denied. With such extensive and impeccable backgrounds, each of the artists have forged themselves as true leaders in their respective arts. It was an event that showcased the outstanding genius of truly notable international artists, and was a rare and magnificent experience to be remembered and savoured.