Music review: Armenian Sounds at Baird Auditorium

VIRTUOSO: A viola like a voice: Kim Kashkashian.
VIRTUOSO: A viola like a voice: Kim Kashkashian.
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Smithsonian Associates and the Embassy of Armenia presented a memorable concert in the National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium on Tuesday night. The hour-long program of Armenian music, performed by violist Kim Kashkashian, Armenian composer and pianist Tigran Mansurian, and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, was drawn largely from their admirable series of recordings for ECM.

Speaking through an interpreter before the concert, Mansurian noted that, although he was going to sing some of the pieces, he is not a singer, and he was not kidding. Even with a voice that was barely audible, wobbly and generally unreliable, the venerable composer contributed something affecting and mysterious to two sets of Armenian folk song transcriptions by Vartabed Komitas, whose work on Armenian folk music is comparable to what Bartók and Kodály did in Hungary. Seeming to rise out of a distant past, Mansurian's voice, almost disembodied even with amplification, was echoed by many in the audience, humming along softly.

To hear Kashkashian play makes one ashamed to have repeated those inevitable jokes about the viola: In her hands the instrument's tone is as malleable and expressive as the human voice. She gave an inflected, at times barbed line to the melodies of Mansurian's "Four Hayrens," composed originally for mezzo-soprano, and often doubled Mansurian's voice, watching carefully to match the articulation of the words. Schulkowsky contributed mostly atmospheric sounds, drones and harmonic clusters on the vibraphone with additional tinges and shimmers from crotales and gongs. Although one might criticize the overabundance of slow and reflective pieces, the concert had a mesmerizing effect, immersing the listener in a far-off world.

-- Charles T. Downey

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