A Musical Discovery

BY CHARLES FIERRO

The world premiere of an important piece of music is always a cause for celebration, and when the work itself is particularly distinguished, there is special reason to rejoice.  Just such an occasion occurred on March 19 at Zipper Hall in Los Angeles when the Dilijan Concerts presented the newly commissioned “Novelette” by Ashot Zohrabian.   

Zohrabian, 65, is one of the most esteemed composers in Armenia.  He has had numerous successful performances internationally.  Listeners everywhere find that his music is a discovery well worth making.  

A survey of his catalog reveals an allegiance to chamber music, and the “Novelette” is in fact a piano quartet structured as a single movement.  Zohrabian’s harmonic idiom is personal and at the same time completely comprehensible. The music has a narrative, almost autobiographical quality, communicating intense emotions with remarkable transparency.  

Audiences expect music by Armenian composers to “sound Armenian” while simultaneously embracing Western stylistic advances, a challenge that Zohrabian met without pastiche or compromise.  After a single hearing, it would be premature to proclaim this as a masterpiece, but we have the sense that this work is a major contribution to the chamber music repertory and that it will merit many performances.

The program opened with the early String Quartet in E-flat by Franz Schubert, followed by Four Bagatelles for string quartet by the independent Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), whose fascination with philosophies of the Far East inspired him to create music of a mystical persuasion.  Broad tempos and slow harmonic progressions seem to suspend the flow of time and induce a mood of stillness and contemplation.

The concert concluded with one of the summits of the Romantic period, the Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet by the French composer, Ernest Chausson (1855-1899).  Chausson came from a cultured, privileged background and throughout his life maintained connections with the literary salons of the day.  Occasionally his style reminds us of the music of his teacher Cesar Franck, from whom he inherited a penchant for frequent modulations and cyclical forms. One observer has remarked that if Marcel Proust had written music, it might have sounded like Chausson: opulent, passionate and meticulous.   

In the Dilijan Concert tradition, all the performances were superb.  Members of the Apple Hill String Quartet (Elise Kuder, Sarah Kim, Michael Kelly and Rupert Thompson) displayed admirable ensemble cohesiveness and dedication to the music.  Violinist Movses Pogossian and pianist Gavin Martin brought all their resources of elegant virtuosity and insight to their roles.  Altogether it was a memorable concert experience.

Charles Fierro is a concert pianist and Professor Emeritus of Music at California State University Northridge.       

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