By Mark Swed
Armenia’s struggle for international acknowledgment that the extermination of more than a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War was genocide has been the work of historians and politicians. But it is also a job for art, especially with the recent 100th anniversary of the first deportations from Turkey.
On Tuesday, Armenia was awarded the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for best national pavilion, “Armenity,” which addresses the Armenian diaspora. Armenia is also a musical nation, and on Tuesday, the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra made its first appearance in Walt Disney Concert Hall with “A Concert of Remembrance.”
Founded in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan 90 years ago, shortly after the country was incorporated into the Soviet Union, the orchestra had the reputation as a solid Soviet band while still maintaining its spirited national identity.
Nearly all of its artistic directors and principal conductors, as well as its players, have been and continue to be Armenian. An important exception was the twentysomething Valery Gergiev, who led the orchestra in the early 1980s.
The Disney Hall program, conducted by Eduard Topchjan (artistic director and principal conductor since 2000), represented both the orchestra’s Armenian and Soviet heritage. Splashy potboilers — the most popular numbers from Khachaturian’s ballet “Spartacus” and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony — opened and closed the concert.
It was a notably less ambitious, or commemorative, occasion than the imaginative and comprehensive all-Armenian gala program given last week in Washington, D.C., the orchestra’s only other U.S. stop on its first North American tour in 19 years.
But there was also Tigran Mansurian’s significantly somber Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra, featuring an eloquent young soloist, Anush Nikoghosyan. The 76-year-old composer, who divides his time between Yerevan and Glendale, represents both to his country, where he is a national figure, and the international music community, the soul of Armenia.