This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory, originally established as a studio in 1921 and two years later transformed into an institute of higher education. Its alumni include prolific names like Arno Babajanyan, Edward Mirzoyan and Anahit Tsitsikyan. But today the conservatory faces a paradox: a resurgence of interest in Armenian musicial education amid an outflow of its talented masters to Europe, leaving the education of the next generation in the balance.
In the heart of Yerevan, the statue of Armenian composer Komitas stands tall alongside the State Conservatory named in his honor. Sounds of music float from every window of the historic building, mixing with the sounds of the noisy city below.
During the Soviet era, musicians would travel to the Russian cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg for training, faithfully returning home to contribute to Yerevan Conservatory's development.
"Our Conservatory became a well-established institution because it was modeled after the schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg... the world’s finest in terms of performing and creative arts," said Conservatory Rector Shahen Shahinyan. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Conservatory retains strong ties with Russian conservatories.
The arts flourished in Armenia during the Soviet years, Shahinyan recalls, with the Komitas Conservatory established alongside the Opera Theater, the Philharmonic Orchestra and numerous other musical groups.
"During Soviet times, in Armenia, there were six symphony orchestras of different sizes and for different purposes," said Shahinyan.
After Armenia's independence in 1991, the Conservatory chose to integrate into the European educational system, so that its graduates would be recognized abroad as holders of master's degrees. This equivalency with the European higher educational system went into effect with the joining of the Bologna Process for higher education in 2005.
The Conservatory's emergence from the Soviet system, like that of the country, has not been easy amid the current tough economy.
The windows of the Conservatory, dating from the mid-1950s, were recently changed and bathrooms were renovated. But the building still needs major repairs. Most pressing is its lack of a concert hall, which makes planning performances a struggle.
Despite the ongoing challenges, the conservatory has recently experienced a revival of interest among the country's youth, Diasporans and international students.
While the conservatory had around 500 students enrolled at a time during the best Soviet years, today it is attended by about 1,000 students. Fifteen percent of the student body is from abroad, the majority ethnic Iranians and others from Armenian Diaspora communities.
Conscious of the thirst for musical education in the country's northern regions, the conservatory opened a branch in Gyumri—the historic cultural capital of Armenia—in the year 2000, which is now attended by over 150 students.
The most popular courses are those in the Armenian Folk Music Department, a testament to the enduring interest in Armenia's rich musical heritage. But the 90-year-old landmark is not just a building filled with classrooms. Annually, hundreds of talented musicians from around the world flock to Armenia to participate in the many festivals, such as the Aram Khachaturian International Competition.
The conservatory's 50-year-old rector, who has served the institution for three decades, says interest in the arts today is even greater than what was seen during Soviet times. "Armenia has become such a musical country. Over the past year, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra came to perform and conservatory students were able to interact with famous artists performing on Armenian stages," said Shahinyan. In turn, conservatory students have performed on prestigious stages abroad and become prize-winning laureates at 22 international competitions in the past year alone.
But the resurgence of interest in Armenian musical education is not without obstacles. Unlike in Soviet times, when specialists trained abroad and returned home, many talented artists now permanently live overseas. The growing trend of the most talented graduates immigrating to Europe has many worried that there will soon be a shortage of professors left to educate future generations.
The majestic voice of Narine Ojakhyan, a 2003 graduate of the Komitas Conservatory, captivated audiences at New York's Carnegie Hall in April of this year.
The popular soprano got her first big break at age 14, when she won the gold medal at the Golden Gate International Children's and Youth Choral Festival in San Francisco in 1995.
She would go on to attend the Komitas Conservatory on a full scholarship, and later enroll at the Royal College of Music in London and with the financial support of London- based philanthropist Rafi Manoukian.
"It is important to study abroad, but I cannot say that I learned many more things after my vocal arts studies in Yerevan," said the singer, now 32.
She remembers her first year in the UK: going from being a big fish in a small pond to a relative nobody was a difficult adjustment: "I had become used to being known to many people in Armenia. In London no one recognized me at first. But by the time I was a second-year student, I had again gained notice."
After graduating, Ojakhyan travelled to Los Angeles and then to New York to pursue her musical career. But the life of a musician in the West has not been a walk in the park. In addition to her musical career, Ojakhyan must also work in a bank to pay the bills in the Big Apple.
Ojakhyan's journey is the logical path for many new graduates, like 22-year-old violinist Mary Khojayan.
"I had gone to Belgium to perform and, by chance, my current professor noticed me and invited me to his class. It is already four years that I've been living in Holland," said Mary.
This petite girl skillfully commands the violin that obeys every motion of her hand. She relishes attending concerts and interacting with prominent musicians in the Netherlands, and says it would be hard to give that up and return home". In terms of professors, the difference is not so great. My professor in Armenia and the one here actually studied together at the Moscow Conservatory. But, unfortunately, I see my future here in the Netherlands," said Khojayan.
Nerses Ohanyan, 23, earned his master's degree at the Komitas Conservatory, and later began a four-year program at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany. He feels the conservatory provides a solid base for students to succeed abroad, but it falls short in terms of the latest technologies used in European classrooms.
"I decided that I should continue my education abroad. It's very difficult here, both living and integrating, but as time passes you learn everything," said the musician.
Along with studying, Ohanyan also teaches and performs across Europe. But he remembers the Armenian audience with nostalgia".
They always received me very warmly, which is very inspiring. In Europe, they can be somewhat cold," said Ohanyan.
But the musician could not justify the financial tradeoff for returning home. While an artist is paid 10,000-15,000 drams (about $24-$36) on average for a private performance in Yerevan, a similar concert abroad can earn him some 100-150 Euros (about $130-200).
"We all want to return to Armenia...Armenia is our home, but the prospects there are not so promising, and that's why we try to prove our worth abroad. But if the situation in Armenia improves, I am sure that at least half of them—if not most—will return," he said.
Most graduates, however, will stay in Armenia, finding a combination of steady jobs, private students and gigs that allow them to make a living in their field.
One of them is Marina Galstyan, a 2010 graduate of the conservatory and the two-time winner of Armenia's Best Conductor award.
"I know this is my soil, my water, my motherland, so it is my priority to give my small part to Armenian choir, and to introduce the European style to the Armenian public," she said.
She teaches at Yerevan's Ananya Shirakatsi seminary and at the Sayat Nova Music School. At the 2013 Gyumri Renaissance International Song Festival, one of her choirs took home silver.
The accomplished 27-year-old says she earns only 30,000 drams (about $70) per month. "If not for the love of children, one could easily get disappointed and give up this profession," said Galstyan. Like many of her peers, she is determined to stay in Armenia.
Galstyan concedes there are many challenges that come with this path: "Our conditions are quite dire, and without financial support from the outside it is impossible to survive on your own," she said. "Unfortunately, Armenia's financial resources and its professional capabilities do not match."
For the Rector of the Conservatory, the stories and sentiments of alumni leaving or struggling is all too familiar.
"Unfortunately, many of those who leave do not come back, even though they bring great honor and recognition to our country. In the future, we are going to have a shortage of talented professionals," said Shahinyan.
"Let's hope that in the near future we will be able to pay our artists enough so that they prefer to live and work in their homeland," he said.