Taking note of Mansurian
Armenian composer gains acclaim for strong and emotional works
LOS ANGELES -- Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian may not be a household name. But in his homeland, in Armenian diaspora communities, and in Europe's new music circles, he is regarded as Armenia's greatest living composer. Recently, he's been getting even wider notice.
The tastemaking German label ECM has issued four CDs of his music ("Monodia" was nominated for a 2005 Grammy), and a fifth is planned. Recently, New York has heard two U S premieres: "Con Anima" for string sextet at Merkin Concert Hall and an Agnus Dei for clarinet, violin, cello , and piano at Carnegie Hall. And last month the Glendale-based Lark Musical Society presented three concerts to commemorate the 92nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Highlights included his epic a cappella choral work, "Ars Poetica," and the US premiere of his Violin Concerto No. 2, titled "Four Serious Songs," and his Viola Concerto, ". . . and then I was in time again . . ."
Mansurian specializes in "very strong, emotional music," said Anja Lechner, cellist of the Munich-based Rosamunde String Quartet, which has recorded three Mansurian works for ECM. "That's maybe why it goes directly to people's hearts."
Mansurian believes that music has a spiritual purpose. "There are two main roots to music," he said recently. "The first one is the religious, Christian aspect, the issue of pain and spirituality, the pain of Christ being crucified and the guilt that comes from it and our relationship to God. The second one is our instinctive search for paradise lost. That's what makes music."
Because he shifted between Armenian and Russian, Mansurian was speaking through several interpreters at the Lark Musical Society offices. A gentle, elegant man with flowing white hair, he spoke in a light, precise tenor, often animating his remarks with eloquently shaped gestures that belied the struggle he said composing has been for him.
"Since childhood to now, my fingertips are bleeding from the conflict," he said. "It was always my personal fight or mission."
Born Jan. 27, 1939, to Armenian parents in Beirut, Lebanon, he moved with his family to Soviet Armenia in 1947 and then in 1956 to the capital, Yerevan, where they settled. He studied at the Yerevan Music Academy and at the Komitas State Conservatory, where, after earning a doctorate, he taught and later became rector.
He won two first prizes in the All-Union competition in Moscow in 1966 and 1968 and the Armenian State Prize in 1981.
Armenia is still his home, but his daughter, Nvart Sarkissian, lives in Glendale, and because his wife, Nora Aharonian, died last year, he plans to spend more time in Southern California.
His early works combined neoclassicism and Armenian folk traditions. Subsequently, he adopted 12-tone and serial techniques. His more recent works are a mix of all these influences.
"I have tried to find myself in the old Armenian music," he said. "I have tried to find myself in Boulez's serialism. When you go deep in these traditions, you will find the things that are true to your individual roots. "
In addition, he said, he always has been drawn to the written word. "As a musician, the Armenian language was one of my first teachers," he said.
"Four Hayrens," for example, is a setting of Armenian poems. "Ars Poetica" consists of poems by Yeghishe Charents, a victim of Stalin's purges. The title of his Viola Concerto, ". . . and then I was in time again . . ." is a line spoken by Quentin Compson, the doomed hero of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury."
"I have devoted 10 years of my life to Faulkner," he said, before spontaneously reciting the opening of that novel in Russian.
"If I were to choose the person who was most significant to me, it would have been Quentin, because of his incredible honesty."
Mansurian read the book first in Russian, but upon later reading an Armenian translation, he said, he discovered that the Soviet version had been heavily censored.
"Just like the Soviet state got involved in every other aspect of life, it got involved in translations," he said. "That's how things were done."
Living under the Soviet system, he added, was "some sort of different Faulknerian tale. It was another monumental feeling of loss."
For all his identification with his homeland, Mansurian said he preferred to regard himself as a composer rather than an Armenian composer.
"To be truthful to myself, I have to rely on my genetic memory and my way of praying and my whole being, which is of course very Armenian," he said. "But not in order to be called Armenian -- just in order to be true to myself."