Yerevan’s Own Summer Of Love

On the eve of the Open Music Fest debut, a conversation with maestro Aram Gharabekian

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YEREVAN–This summer Yerevan is poised to dazzle audiences with an unprecedented cultural event, the debut of Open Music Fest.

The brainchild of Aram Gharabekian, artistic director and principal conductor of the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia, Open Music Fest will comprise some 25 concerts and a veritable mosaic of programs reflecting the diverse energies of Yerevan itself.

Beyond its significance as a musical watershed, Open Music Fest is also destined to set a new standard in community collaboration and hence civic pride. Indeed, the vision for the festival rests first and foremost in a broad synergistic engagement of artists, businesses, government agencies, corporate donors, and embassies, all of whose efforts will converge on a uniquely Yerevanian expression of open hearts and open horizons through the art of music.

Asbarez’s Sona Hamalian caught up with maestro Gharabekian at his Yerevan office for a conversation about Open Music Fest 2009, a project which he considers as much a labor of love as an abiding statement of civic faith.

Sona Hamalian: How did the idea of Open Music Fest come about?

0713aram2smallAram Gharabekian:
It was in the making for many years. Let’s take it from this angle: as a resident of Yerevan, I always thought that during summer a certain cultural breath of fresh air was missing in the city. Of course it is wonderful weather in summer, the spirits are high, there is great night life, a lot of hustle and bustle till 2 or 3 in the morning, with lots of tourists and locals, but there is this inner void that you would like to see challenged by some artistic or cultural impulse.

This is the need that I felt, and then I heard more or less the same from many people, visitors and locals alike. So this idea was always alive, as I felt that there was a need for a cultural endeavor such as Open Music Fest, both from my personal point of view and my interaction with others.

S.H.: Why Yerevan?

A.G.: Yerevan is the heartbeat of this small, beautiful, fantastic, magical country which we cherish and love so much. And as we’re always striving to contribute to its growth, the idea was to offer an undertaking that would radiate a uniquely Armenian cultural impetus from the heart of Yerevan to the rest of the country and well beyond it, something contagious in an absolutely, wonderfully, positive way.

That idea went on to manifest itself as a festival – specifically, a festival that would represent our spirit and identity, our past and present, our rich heritage, what we create today as well as our vision for the future.

Given such an ambitious goal and mindful of the enormous expectations connected with it, we set out to design a festival that would have a rock-solid musical foundation yet equally thrive on multidimensionality.

Classical music – as perhaps the ultimate benchmark of musical excellence – would be at the core of the festival. A second important area of focus would be jazz, not only for its obvious artistic merits but because it has deep roots in Armenia and continues to resonate in our culture today.

We decided that two of the pillars of the festival would consist of ethnographic and folk music. Despite the fact that Armenia’s cultural legacy is brimming with ethnographic music, today’s audiences actually know very little about it. Amazingly enough, we have so many experts and ensembles dedicated to ethnographic music – researching and unearthing material, performing, enhancing, preserving. Yet their work is like fine wine, destined to remain in the “cellar” and not quite be available to the public at large. So Open Music Fest will be an ideal conduit for sharing our ethnographic gems with big audiences.

We have a similar approach toward the inclusion of Armenian folk music in the festival program. The folk music we usually hear these days – on television and radio, at the cafés and restaurants we frequent – is to a large extent a distortion of the genuine article. Open Music Fest will present Armenian folk in its authentic form, as it was supposed to sound.

Another essential component of Open Music Fest has to do with the future: our young talents, children in particular. I never cease to be amazed by the fact that a small country such as Armenia can give birth to so many breathtakingly talented youths. I’m so fortunate to come across these kids and have the opportunity to work with them, not only in Yerevan but throughout the regions of Armenia. I think it is our responsibility and privilege to present these young talents at Open Music Fest, and ultimately to encourage and guide them into becoming our great artists of the future.

Last but not least, Open Music Fest will present programs devoted to fusions of various musical genres. The concept here is to offer fresh expressions through the innovative melding of disparate musical traditions – not for the sake of merely trying something different, but in a spirit of arriving at a new artistic truth through musical cross-pollination.

S.H.: What, would you say, is the significance of associating a musical festival with a particular locale, and Yerevan specifically?

A.G.: It’s about a place that would totally embrace what you’re trying to achieve, that would not only encapsulate your goal but go on to fuel it well into the future, with the ultimate result that locale and project can grow to reflect and symbolize one another.

With this in mind, the right venue for Open Music Fest was of critical importance. We have performed many outdoor concerts in the past but none of the spaces had that special touch. Furthermore, each presented a problem that was beyond our control.

Then, during a casual conversation with some friends, one of them suggested the long-forgotten Kino Moskva open-air theater as a possible venue for Open Music Fest. “That’s such a fantastic idea,” I remember exclaiming.

Imagine the festival happening right in the heart of Yerevan, literally in the epicenter, and during summer no less, when the city is so full of life. I think Kino Moskva  is a beautiful space which is ideal for summer concerts, and I absolutely love it as the venue for Open Music Fest.

S.H.: Do you envision Open Music Fest to become an annual event, a tradition?

A.G.: Certainly. I’m a strong believer of endeavors which have continuity, which grow and evolve to become great traditions in their own right, leaving their own indelible imprint on the path of a culture.

S.H.: In terms of musical offerings, what will be some of the defining or unique elements of the Open Music Fest programs?

A.G.: True to the vision of a multidimensional festival, we have designed programs with specific musical themes. Examples include “Komitas 140,” “Musical Game,” “Almost Bach,” and “Vivaldi Meets Duke Ellington.”

Tailoring these programs has entailed quite a few challenges, because the point is not just to come up with a chic theme and a fancy name, but to have a particular theme actually rise to the occasion, pleasantly surprise audiences and enchant them, in terms of musical fidelity and innovation alike. In other words, these themes must translate into totally convincing musical experiences.

S.H.: Will the festival feature any performers, local or international, in addition to the NCOA?

A.G.: Yes. Open Music Fest will feature a great many guest performers – soloists and ensembles – from Armenia and throughout the world. At each concert of the festival, several soloists will perform, enabling us to play around and be creative with a given musical theme through the solo performers’ unique approaches to the material at hand.   

Open Music Fest will also provide musicians of various genres with a great opportunity to interact, collaborate, and learn from one another. I think the presence of musicians from abroad will bring the festival a special touch and spirit, resulting in a fascinating experience for everyone involved: local musicians, performers from overseas, and our audiences.

S.H.: A key aspect of Open Music Fest will be the high level of civic engagement it seeks to engender. What has your experience been like in this respect?

0713aram3smallA.G.: It is so amazing that from the moment that this festival was initiated it was met with a great surge of grassroots energy which became contagious. Our appeals for community engagement were responded to swiftly and with heartwarming genuineness. People from all walks of life and in so many positions – artists, designers, printers, business owners, sponsors, general volunteers – embraced the idea at the get-go, committing their services and resources to the project.

This tells me there was a true need for a festival of this kind. Therefore I feel extremely privileged to work with so many dedicated supporters in helping launch this project, which ultimately belongs to them and the great City of Yerevan. In this sense, I’m very proud to say that Open Music Fest will not only be a celebration of music, but a symbol of Yerevan’s spirit of togetherness.

S.H.: In seeking out local public support as well as assistance from the international community, what are some of your essential needs and requirements?

A.G.: When recently we initiated the Open Music Fest idea, we had an abundance of determination and hope but nothing in terms of actual material resources. And while the people of Yerevan responded to the project with an overwhelmingly positive attitude, three local corporations, VivaCell, Converse Bank and Hye Post, provided the seed support needed to launch the festival. These two companies, our corporate guardian angels, did not even need convincing to lend a helping hand. Rather, in keeping with their philosophy of corporate social responsibility and community give-back, they simply gave us their unconditional approval, thus enabling us to get to work in earnest.

We were also blessed to receive major assistance from Mr. Hovig Kurkjian, a prominent diaspora benefactor. Mr. Kurkjian is a visionary individual committed to the ideals of civic engagement, international friendship and cultural excellence. It is thanks to his timely contribution that we were able to secure a top-notch, German-made sound system for Open Music Fest. His enthusiasm for this project, the faith and trust he has placed in our endeavor, will help us create an outstanding concert experience for thousands.   

Today, while Open Music Fest is well underway, it still requires considerable financial assistance for making good on the vision of excellence it was inspired by. Accordingly, we are appealing to a broad pool of prospective supporters, stressing the idea of meaningful participation rather than mere monetary help.

For instance, we’re urging foreign embassies to sponsor artists from their own countries to perform at Open Music Fest, consequently fostering artistic exchanges between their respective homelands and Armenia; we’re encouraging international organizations operating in Armenia to sponsor specific guest artists or a particular festival concert of their choosing, as part of their mandate to promote Armenia’s cultural and economic development; and we’re encouraging donors in Armenia and abroad to become the founding benefactors of Open Music Fest, to have a stake in the present and future success of this extraordinary endeavor.

For more information about Open Music Fest 2009 or the National Chamber Orchestra or Armenia, visit ncoa.am.

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