Nurturing Armenian culture and arts has been at the core of the AGBU mission since its establishment. With the inception of the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in 2012, AGBU reaffirmed its commitment to supporting Armenian performing arts. Through its varied programming, PAD has strived to showcase the Armenian artistic tradition to its own people as well as to those who otherwise may not have the opportunity to see, watch and listen to Armenian arts in action. It simultaneously provides support to AGBU chapters and districts around the world on performing arts projects.
The 2016-2017 PAD season of events has taken this objective to heart. In October, the winners of the biennial AGBU Sayat Nova International Composition Competition were announced. Designed to acquaint a general audience with Armenian music, literature and history, the competition founded in 2006 with Gala Concerts in Paris and New York City, asks composers of all heritages to submit compositions for an ensemble of Armenian folk and Western classical instruments, and integrate verses of Armenian poetry into their works. For this edition of the competition, composers were asked to submit compositions for a chamber ensemble consisting of a string quartet, shvi, and a tenor, and incorporate the work of the tenth-century Armenian monk, poet and philosopher Grigor Narekatsi, who was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis in 2015. Over the years, submissions have arrived from Argentina, Ghana, Hong Kong, Korea, Mexico, and Russia, in addition to Armenia, the United States. In 2016, Dzovinar Mikirditsian of Lebanon and France was awarded first prize and Special Prize of the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra for her piece “Iyerk;” Alexandr Iradyan of Armenia received second prize and the Special Carnegie Hall Prize for his piece “Frames;” and Joshua Márquez of the Philippines and the United States earned third prize for his piece “Awake.” Through a new collaboration between PAD and the Composer’s Union of Armenia, the three winning works will be published by the Union’s ArMusic Publishing House. The competition also gave a special mention to the Korean American composer, Dohi Moon, for her piece “A Midwinter Night’s Dream.”
“As a Filipino-American composer, the timbre of traditional Filipino instruments always plays a role in my compositional process and I tried to do the same with Armenian culture without objectifying it. Immersing yourself in another culture is incredibly rewarding, so long as you understand your perspective and always approach such important matters with the upmost reverence,” said Márquez.
Iradyan’s piece will premiere on November 3 at the AGBU NYSEC Performing Artists in Concert series at Carnegie Hall. Since 2008, the concert series has been a flagship event of the AGBU New York Special Events Committee (NYSEC), a dynamic group of volunteers that shares a commitment to organizing special events geared to Armenians in the Greater New York area.
It unites Armenian musicians from around the world who have received AGBU Performing Arts Scholarships or Fellowships and are studying at world-renowned institutions, such as the Juilliard School, London’s Royal Academy of Music, and the Shanghai Music Conservatory, among others. These concerts give young artists, at the start of their careers, a major boost by performing on a world-class stage and becoming acquainted with New York’s demanding audience.
Building on the mission of the department, PAD held its second annual Armenians in Film at Lincoln Center: 6 Short Films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last November. The screening featured films by Viktoria Aleksanyan, Vatche Boulghourjian, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Anna Maria Mouradian, Jesse Soursourian and Martiros Vartanov, providing them with the chance to establish connections and future collaborations; receive invaluable feedback on their work with a post-screening question-and-answer session; and giving the New York artistic community a glimpse into their achievements. Individually, these filmmakers have had their works screened at prestigious festivals, such as the Cannes Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Sunset Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. Plans are underway to bring the event to Chicago and Los Angeles in the near future.
Through its programs, PAD also seeks to bring attention to Armenia-based artists and, to this end, worked with AGBU chapters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Paris in April to organize a tour for the ethno-jazz group Miqayel Voskanyan & Friends. On April 5, the group—led by tar player and singer Miqayel Voskanyan—performed at DROM, a popular world music venue in New York City, with special guest Sevana Tchakerian of the Paris based group Collectif Medz Bazar. The concert drew hundreds of attendees, among them non-Armenian jazz aficionados, and garnered praise from the online newspaper New York Music Daily: “Armenia is small, about the same size as Jamaica. Like reggae, Armenian music has a vast, global influence: Voskanyan’s compositions reflect that scope.”
This same goal of bringing Armenian music to the attention of mainstream audiences also led to a collaboration in May with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute of Music to include Armenia in its Musical Explorers Program. PAD identified and initiated this collaboration to bring a new form of exposure to Armenian artistic culture.
The program is designed to connect New York City public school students grades K-2 to the city’s rich and diverse musical community as they build fundamental music skills through listening, singing, and moving to songs from all over the world. This year, they learned about Armenian folk music, bluegrass, Chinese traditional music, Sudanese celebration songs, calypso, and hip-hop. For five days, the Zulal A Capella Trio—with guest instrumentalists Ara Dinkjian and Martin Haroutunian—led workshops with students and teachers, and introduced them to traditional Armenian songs and dances, which they performed along with the artists during 10 interactive sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.
“At one moment during the concert, the MC asked Dinkjian to play his oud together with the steelpans of the calypso musician to the beats of the hip-hop DJ, displaying how diversity can be unified in one piece of music. This concept aligns perfectly with the mission of AGBU: to be an integral part of the cultural landscape of the surrounding communities. Hearing hundreds of children from the five boroughs sing Armenian folk songs is a touching symbol of unity in this immensely multicultural city,” said AGBU PAD director Hayk Arsenyan.
PAD brings the academic year of events to a close with its annual AGBU Musical Armenia Program (MAP), which takes place in Yerevan during the last three weeks of July. Since 2012, MAP has invited music lovers and musicians of all heritages, levels, and nationalities to come together and explore Armenia’s musical traditions. Participants take one-on-one lessons with renowned musicians in Armenia, and attend lectures by musicologists on genres ranging from folk to contemporary, liturgical to jazz and classical to blues.
MAP has attracted musicians from around the globe, upholding PAD’s mission to educate audiences of different backgrounds. In 2016, accomplished violinist and composer Dinesh Subasinghe of Sri Lanka attended MAP and his love for Armenian music grew deeper. “If you want to learn the music, you have to learn about the culture and history of the country. I was lucky to have exceptional teachers who cared about us. I really loved this program, as Armenia has something deeply touching in soul.”
The common thread in all the AGBU Performing Arts Department programs is a commitment to showcase the riches of Armenian culture in all its forms and ensuring that not only Armenians have access to an exceptional artistic tradition that dates back centuries and will continue well into the future.