When in May of this year, rock music relic Jethro Tull appeared in concert in Yerevan, it may not have signaled the most high-brow moment of the cultural season, but it did make a point: Now, Armenia just about has it all.
The summer found Armenia's Little Singers on the stage at the inaugural Open Music Fest, and old Jethro Tull at the Youth and Sports Center heaving out "Aqualung" for fans who didn't care that it had been 38 years since the flute in a rock band made Ian Anderson a legend. (Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian is said to be a devoted fan of Jethro Tull—founded by Anderson—and was instrumental in bringing the group to Armenia. And in October the PM presented "Orders of Honor" to British rock icons Ian Gillan of Deep Purple and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, in recognition of a concert they performed 20 years ago to raise money for victims of the Spitak earthquake.)
And, again from the "are these guys still alive?" circuit, hard-rock dinosaur Uriah Heep included Yerevan on its 40th anniversary tour on October 16.
No, Yerevan is not exactly the world stage when it comes to attracting the pop-star A-list. The point, though, is that it is at least slowly being found.
American Jazz-funk guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan astonished crowds in August performances, as had international favorite Al Jarreau a year ago. Three-time French-Armenian Academy award-winning composer Michel Legrand performed in Yerevan with the State Youth Orchestra in September.
And while popular music finds new and growing audiences internally, Armenia has a chance to star on the big screen, as an independent film has been shot in Armenia by a foreign production crew with internationally known actors.
Long gone are the days when performance halls or theaters were too cold or too dark; when facilities were embarrassingly in disrepair and when the public could not have been expected to pay a reasonable ticket price.
Measured by its crowded cultural calendar, life in Armenia is at a peak. Festive in fact, considering:
July 12-19: Golden Apricot International Film Festival
July 30-September 22: Open Music Fest
September 5-18: International Festival of Puppet Theaters
September 8-20: Shakespeare International Festival
September 11-October 23: Yerevan International Music Festival
October 1-8: HighFest International Performing Arts Festival
October 3-6: International Animation Film Festival
October 25-29: SunChild Environmental Festival
Though exact numbers of visitors are not available, officials at the Ministry of Culture say there has been a sharp rise in the number of visits to cultural centers, notably since Armenia began feeling the impact of the world financial crisis.
Golden age for film festival
Perhaps no single event has drawn the world of arts' attention to Armenia more than the Golden Apricot International Film Festival (GAIFF).
Now in its sixth year, the festival screened 110 films from 40 countries. For the first time this year, it was attended by representatives of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who presented an award of special recognition to the festival.
"Our representatives visit the largest European festivals annually: Venice, Cannes and Berlin; however we are also trying to expand the framework of developing and promising festivals," said the association's Joran Kohanan. "We had heard a lot about GAIFF. By this award we wish to emphasize the success and importance of the Armenian festival."
While the festival is a week-long banquet for foreign film lovers, it also exists to encourage film-making at home. It is a measure of the festival's success, then, that local filmmaker and the director of Golden Apricot, Harutiun Khachatrian, himself was honored with awards this year.
Khachatrian's film "Border" won a platinum award at the Houston Film Festival, and Best Feature Documentary at the Syracuse Film Festival. Further, this year's Moscow Film Festival held a retrospective of seven Khachatrian films. Previously, only two Armenian directors, Sergey Parajanov and Artavazd Peleshyan, had been honored with retrospective screenings of their films in any festival.
"I believe that Golden Apricot Film Festival is one of the most important events in Armenia, just because it manages to make our life a film for a whole week," says Minister of Culture Hasmik Poghosian.
A weekend of animated films added to the "festival" culture in Armenia this year with "Reanimania," which offered about 100 short films and five feature-length animated movies, drawn from about 250 entries from 31 countries.
"We've been planning such a festival for three years," said the festival's general director Vrezh Kasuni. "And this year we have an opportunity to take the first steps in promoting the development of the animated film production sphere, in particular by holding this festival in Armenia."
The festival was to have been a spotlight for Armenia's favored film animator, Robert Sahakyants, creator of some 30 animated films, many of which won awards in international film festivals in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan, Ukraine, Russia and Estonia.
Sahakyants, 53, died just 10 days before the festival from complications following heart surgery.
The animator was most beloved for the series of films he created based on the classic children's tales of Hovhannes Tumanian and he served as Artistic Director of the Union of Animation Films at the Hayfilm studio.
"Festivals have become the only means to present our work, because no one agrees to show animation films on TV, in spite of the fact that currently we create even more cartoons than during the former Soviet period," Sahakyants said shortly before his death. "If before no more than three animated films were created annually, then now their number may reach even five."
Sahakyants had planned to present "Road to Home," a series of eight films depicting life in Armenia in 2050, when Armenia would have regained the part of its ancient land now held by Turkey.
While emerging as a destination for cultural events, Armenian performance art is also being exported with the growth and success of AGBU-sponsored Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra (APO).
The more-than-100-piece ensemble is in its 80th year, led since 2000 by artistic director and principal conductor Eduard Topchjan.
Last year the orchestra performed a 15-concert tour of Japan, adding the Far East to its foreign tours that have included France, Germany, Czech Republic, Greece… In the United States the orchestra has played in the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and New York's Carnegie Hall.
At home in the Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall, APO performs 40-45 concerts per year. It has produced more than 40 CD recordings and a DVD of the Japan tour as well as performance of the opera "Madame Butterfly."
For the past three years, APO has been host to the Yerevan International Music Festival, which brought guest musicians from Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Belgium, Austria and Japan this September-October.
Guest musicians were also a feature of the first Open Music Fest inaugurated July 30-September 22 on the impetus of Aram Gharabekian, artistic director and principal conductor of the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia (NCOA).
Over nearly two months Yerevan audiences were treated to outdoor concerts in the Moscow Cinema Open Theater, in facilities upgraded for the performances in what had been a venue for movies (though none since 2002). About 12,000 attended the 23 concerts in the 800-capacity amphitheater.
The highlight of the festival was its diversity, as concerts included jazz, ethnic folk, classical, chamber music, rock, and some risky attempts at improvisation. Performances often put members of NCOA in accompaniment with guest artists whose musical genre was more pop oriented.
Performers came from Italy, Russia and the United States, but the Armenian hosts were typically the star attractions. The opening gala, for example, was electrified by Armenia's Little Singers, who shared the spotlight with the Vahagn Dhol Ensemble on a night that also featured Italian accordionist Mario Stefano Pietrodarchi.
Reflecting on the rigors of his ambitious creative dream, Gharabekian said an unexpected payoff of the festival was the relationships formed among artists.
"This was the first festival that created a serious and healthy forum for artists, and our reality, in fact, lacked such an event," said Gharabekian.
"Musicians always had a reason to meet, but they never had a chance to cooperate in such a way. There were jazzmen who got to know chamber musicians and folk musicians who communicated with artists outside their genre. As a result, several musicians have already thought about the creation of new cooperation.
"At the same time, we wanted to establish a festival of such high quality and artistic diversity that it would help earn Yerevan—and Armenia by extension—recognition as a musical center of global relevance."
Spartacus born again
Recognition of Armenia's cultural vitality came at home this year with the National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet production of the Aram Khachaturian ballet "Spartacus," which was produced for its home audience after an 18-year absence—and under the direction of an elder statesman of ballet, Yuri Grigorovich.
Armenia's First Lady Rita Sargsyan was instrumental in bringing the ballet back to Yerevan. The idea occurred to her as she was in Moscow last year to attend a performance marking the 40th anniversary of the ballet. Her Russian counterpart, First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva, attended the Yerevan premiere.
Putting the large-scale production back on stage at home was a collaborative financial effort and, for the first time in Armenian ballet, was achieved through the donation of six businessmen (neither their names, nor the amounts of their donations were made public).
"It is easy when different artists visit Armenia and then leave our country. It is much more difficult to create our own product, and in this respect, I believe that 'Spartacus' was a great achievement," said Minister Poghosian. "The absence of such a performance was a great shortcoming for us."
Bringing "Spartacus" to the stage, though, also underscored Armenia's shortage of male ballet dancers. Forty-one of its best male dancers have gone abroad to perform for more money and in better conditions than may be found at home. In order to fill out the cast for "Spartacus," six ballet dancers had to recalled from their service in the Armenian Army and others were recruited from lesser dance troupes.
"The lack of male dancers is a serious problem in Armenian ballet," Grigorovich said. "Even in such a ballet powerhouse as Russia, boys too prefer leaving for Germany and earning a lot of money there. Still, it is necessary to prevent them from leaving Armenia by improving their social situation. I ask them to come to the rehearsal in the evening, and they tell me that they cannot, because they have other jobs. This is wrong."
Pulling strings to expand art
Far from the big-budget ballet stage, Armen Safaryan packs his performance production into a small van and hauls his troupe and their trappings into the provinces of Armenia to tell stories of Armenian lore through puppets and marionettes.
Armenia has a long-standing tradition of puppet performance, and Yerevan's Puppet Theater is a favored and frequented stop for children and parents.
Safaryan, as the Armenian director of UNIMA (a world puppeteer organization), has been instrumental in creating or restoring about 40 puppet theaters in Armenia and Karabakh since 1995.
For the past four years, UNIMA's activities have included a puppet festival, which opens each year in the village of Dsegh, Lori region, birthplace of writer Hovhannes Tumanian whose fairy tales are recreated through puppetry.
The international organization says its aim is to use puppetry in the pursuit of teaching human rights and tolerance.
Applied to Armenia, creating puppet theaters is also a relatively inexpensive way to engage youth in art, whether as performers or stage and costume designers. It is also, Safaryan says, an accessible way for regional communities to participate in performance art.
"We try to do everything possible so that the provinces of Armenia do not greatly differ from the capital city Yerevan," Safaryan says. "And we feel that year by year Lori (site of the festival launch) is changing toward the positive. As a result of the festival a puppet theater was founded in Lori, and that is already a great achievement."
The puppet maestro boasts that the greatest success is that he sees a message of "conscientious life and humane relations" being absorbed by performers and audiences.
Glass housed at last
Armenia's cultural community has been in anticipation of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, since it was grandly announced in 2002, with expected completion by 2007. The massive project called for a renovation of Yerevan's Cascade upon which would be crowned an internationally unique museum housing the multimillion-dollar glass collection of its philanthropist namesake Gerard L. Cafesjian.
Two years past its projected deadline, the main museum is still on the drawing board, but the infusion of about $35 million and years of peoplepower by the Cafesjian Foundation has transformed the Cascade from a dank and crumbling pedestrian staircase into a scenic gathering place for residents and visitors, marked by a statue garden in Tamanian Park with pieces from world-renowned sculptors, including Fernando Botero.
And in early November, the first gallery in the complex was opened, featuring the unveiling of a glass installation entitled "Libensky' Brychtová: For Armenia," a piece specially designed and installed by Czech artist Jaroslava Brychtová who, with her late husband Stanislav Libensky', has created more than 100 pieces in the considerable Cafesjian collection.
According to press information released by the Center:
"Many of the works in 'For Armenia' resemble Armenia's own traditional khachkar, infusing the work with spiritual meaning and forming a tangible link between the artists and the land they have grown to admire. The Libensky' Brychtová relationship with Armenia dates back to the 1980s, when the artists studied the culture and history of Armenia. The devastation of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia had a profound impact on the artists, resulting in the creation of the triptych (three-sided sculpture) Silhouettes of the Town (1989)."
"I think the Armenian public will appreciate and understand what we are expressing in our art," said Brychtová as she planned to attend the unveiling of the installation and inauguration of the Center.
Culture through information
As artistic life in Armenia has rebounded from its crippling interruption of early independence, the recently founded Armenian Monuments Awareness Project (AMAP) is working to improve the cultural experience of visitors to the country.
Since 2008, AMAP has been installing information panels and directional signs for selected historic, sacred, and natural monuments throughout Armenia.
The Non Governmental Organization (NGO) has a staff of 10 locals and two Americans who, over the past two years, have produced about 400 sources of information, including panels, directional signs and placards at more than 40 locations nationwide.
Now, visitors to such favored destinations as Garni, Geghard, Khor Virap, Tatev and dozens of lesser-known but significant locations can learn about the sites through artistically designed panels with information prepared in five languages (Armenian, Russian, English, French, Italian). Information is also available in another six languages (German, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew) on laminated handouts.
AMAP's general sponsor is VivaCell-MTS communication company, which supports the project as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility program. Significant donations also come from the Honorary Consul of Italy in Giumry and from USAID through its Competitive Armenian Private Sector program (CAPS).
The latter sponsor says it was drawn to the project because of the opportunity it presents for collaboration between private investment that produces income opportunities for the general public. In this case, CAPS predicts that by enhancing the tourism experience, AMAP's work will lead to sustained jobs for villagers in the areas where many of the monuments are located.
"The AMAP initiative to make the Armenian tourism experience more meaningful through these information panels is exactly aligned with the goals of USAID/CAPS to better inform visitors of the many historic and cultural attractions awaiting them in Armenia," says CAPS chief of party, Artak Ghazarian.
"Our experience has shown that tourists—especially those speaking languages other than Armenian or Russian—are accustomed to having such information available in European and Western countries, so it is only appropriate that Armenia's rich heritage should also be presented. This is also an important project for us because it involves the private sector and promotes better understanding of the importance of corporate social responsibility by private sector companies."
Future AMAP projects include creating audio tours by which visitors might use their mobile telephones to access information that will lead them through the highpoints of each site.