Philadelphia Hosts Triumphant Return to Community Life with Live Music Premiere

Zulal performing inside the sanctuary of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church in Philadelphia, November 14, 2021

PHILADELPHIA, Penn.—On Sunday afternoon, the shrine of Saint Gregory the Illuminator was filled with the soothing and calming sounds of Armenian instruments and folk songs as a sold-out crowd gathered for the first in-person musical event for the community Armenian woman in Philadelphia since the start of the pandemic.

The rally was presented by ARTolérance, an organization that works to build bridges through music to peaceful coexistence. He saw the world premiere of “Voyages of Winds”, a piece for duduk and wind quintet composed by Vartan Adjemian of the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan. The program also included performances by vocal trio Zulal and oud virtuoso Ara Dinkjian. The founder and artistic director of ARTolérance, the versatile Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David, was joined by five of his colleagues from the Philadelphia Orchestra: Peter Smith (oboe), Angela Anderson Smith (bassoon), Patrick Williams (flute) , Socrates Villegas (clarinet) and Ernesto Tovar Torres (horn).

“Voyages of Winds” is the rather fortuitous product of a fortuitous inspiration. A few years ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra was to perform the soundtrack of the film. Gladiator, the one who presents the soul duduk of Djivan Gasparyan. However, shortly before the performance, the guest duduk player had to give up, leaving the orchestra without a vital component. He turned to Smith, his oboist, who only had two days to get a duduk and learn to play. Despite the pressing situation, Smith immediately fell in love with the instrument and, after the show’s success, found himself thinking of ways to combine the haunting sound of the duduk with a classical wind quintet. As such interaction is a hallmark of ARTolérance, it was the perfect medium for such an endeavor. The dream came true when Jack and Ramona Vosbikian, supporters of the Philadelphia Orchestra, commissioned Adjemian to create the work. The highly anticipated premiere was scheduled for their home church in St. Gregory’s in April 2020, and we all know what happened next. This creation resulting from a two-day emergency study session should wait almost two more years to make its debut, but what a start!

The crowd gathered for this intercommunity event was welcomed by the Archpriest Fr. Nersès Manoogian. He was followed by Bar-David, who described the music as “without borders, without political or national limits”. He spoke of how lucky he was to play with the Vosbikian Band which first introduced him to the Armenian tradition, in which he found fashions and a spirit very similar to his own. For the first piece, his cello was joined by Dinkjian’s oud for a medley of “Alagyaz” and “Chinar Es” by Komitas. Dinkjian then performed some of his own compositions, including instrumentals that expressed his gratitude for the music. He was followed by Zulal, whose arrangements of Armenian folk songs illustrated the festive nature of the program. One of their songs “Zoulo”, a folk melody by Van, had been taught to one of the members of the trio by his aunt, which, as they explained, remains very much in tune with the transmission of these. songs from generation to generation.

Reflecting on the mission of ARTolerance, Zulal described how it is confirmed by Armenian culture: “As Armenians, whose music and folk stories have been transmitted in part through oral tradition, we know the great power of this gift. One of our favorite folk themes is shared land, shared home. “Mer dan hidev…, tser dan hidev…” What grows behind my house is what grows behind yours. This single lyrical line is perhaps one of the most prevalent in Armenian folk melodies. Sometimes it feels like it’s popping up everywhere. For us, it illuminates the link between Armenian humility and hospitality. Gardens and their fruits are meant to be shared, planted together, and harvested in unison. One way or another, the music can transcend so many dividing lines and create a space where we all feel like we are in a common garden.

The next part was the premiere of Adjemian’s “Voyages of Winds,” which featured Smith on the duduk alongside his fellow Philadelphia Orchestra. Reflecting on the commissioned piece, Ramona Vosbikian described her performance as follows: “This work, which is played by all wind instruments, is a contemplation on the power of the winds as a catalyst for so many things. By blowing, they can carry objects all over the world. This effect is linked to our memory of the genocide, as the winds can be a destructive force, which spread Armenians to all corners of the earth. Yet Armenians have managed to take root in all of these places, and we hope that in the future the winds will also spread peace to be shared with people all over the world. Vosbikian served for 10 years on the board of directors of Bar-David’s first organization, Voyages Interculturels, which also had a mission to use music to bring people in conflict together.

Ara Dinkjian, Teni Apelian, Anaïs Tekerian, Yeraz Markarian, Peter Smith, Angela Anderson Smith and Udi Ben-David (Photo: Christian Wolf)

The concert ended with a joyful finale in which all performers gathered to celebrate Armenian folk music and conviviality. The audience couldn’t help but join in, spontaneously applauding to the beat and closing the concert with a standing ovation. Bar-David expressed how grateful the artists are to be a part of live music again “after such a painful and suffocating time, the music of which we are not yet done with. However, we will overcome the challenges that the pandemic has imposed on us, ”thanking the crowd for their participation. Zulal echoed these remarks, describing their own feelings about the opportunity to participate in the concert: “It was a real pleasure to be able to share our music again, in person and directly. No digital innovation can quite capture the live exchange between listener and musician. When you know that you are traveling directly with your audience, it becomes part of the artistic creation and the exchange becomes much richer than what can be offered digitally. We may know that well, but it was especially rewarding to watch the audience and see that the people were really with us.

Reception hosted by St. Gregory’s Ladies Guild, November 14, 2021

The excited crowd gathered after the concert in the church hall which had been beautifully decorated with a musical theme by the Ladies’ Guild of St. Gregory, who worked hard for days to prepare Armenian delicacies for the everyone’s pleasure. The participants were clearly very happy to see each other again after the long pandemic break. After such enthusiastic success, many have looked with renewed enthusiasm into the future, expressing the hope that more such events will follow, so that their souls will again be refreshed by the Armenian spirit.

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He worked in Armenia as an English language editor at CivilNet and as a project associate for USAID programs. Most recently, he was one of the organizers of the 2019 World Congress on Information Technology in Yerevan. He is also a historian who studies and sheds light on the long and rich history of the Armenian community in Philadelphia.

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

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