How do we face the inescapable reality of awaiting death?
The four composers highlighted in this program, each confront this haunting question through music; each, in his own way, coming face to face with this most ungraspable fact of life: that it must end. These immense works of composers Vahram Sargsyan, Artashes Kartalyan, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, and György Ligeti give us an opportunity to gauge ourselves, the myriad ways in which we, humans, confront this reality.
The “Confessions” program of Dilijan Series, presented on Sunday January 28 at Zipper Hall, celebrates the riches of human voice, with an array of exciting soloists, as well as Lark Chamber Choir under the direction of Vatsche Barsoumian. World renowned baritone Vladimir Chernov makes his long awaited return to the Series, in his premiere rendition of the Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, in collaboration with pianist and UCLA colleague Neal Stulberg. Also performing are Shoushik Barsoumian (soprano) and Vahram Sargsyan (throat singing), and the Dilijan Chamber Ensemble.
In Sargsyan’s work, Ter Voghormya, commissioned by Dilijan, we encounter the “religious” response to Death. Faced with the knowledge that death is the end of our journey, some of us turn to God with a request for mercy: “Have mercy on us O Lord,” save us in death so that we might achieve everlasting life. Extrapolating on this plea (the Kyrie Eleison), the composer expresses uniquely, and in four languages – Greek, Latin, Russian, and Armenian – our puzzling predicament. This unique work demands a soloist capable of producing two independent vocal lines at once. The composer himself, having trained in this method, will sing the dual vocal line accompanied by choir. In the face of death, his is a turn to the Absolute in a manner beyond the expressive capacity of a human, to appeal for Grace.
Kartalyan‘ s compositions A Triptych on poems by Misaq Metzarents, again commissioned by Dilijan, center around the experience of a young man plagued with sickness. Kartalyan builds his music on the exquisite poetry of the famed Armenian poet Metzarents, who lived his youth in illness and finally succumbed to consumption at the age of 22. Death is in front of him, and yet in the three poems by the young poet (“Sunday Eve,” “Love Song,” and “What the leaves were saying”) contain his praise of light, his yearning for the sun, his hope for everlasting luminance. Despite the sureness of his demise, he does not indulge in a gloomy rumination of death, but rather abandons himself to a deep appreciation of the life before him, to an energetic praise for what he is given, and a contentedness with the blessings he enjoys. Kartalyan, with a deeply philosophical approach, sets these texts to music, emphasizing the sensitivity of the poetry and amplifying with complex chords the strange joyousness of this singular young artist.
Mussorgsky, through four poems, titled Songs and Dances of Death, draws four portraits of death. In the first (“Lullaby”) we encounter death singing a lullaby to a restless child, only to discover that it is a final lullaby, before the child is taken from his mother forever. The second (“Serenade”) is a lover’s ballad to his beloved. But sadly, the lover is death who has come for her in the bloom of youth. In the third (“Trepak,” Russian folk dance) we discover Death inviting an old peasant to dance the Trepak; Death’s voice is calling the old man into the woods, where losing himself in dance, he submits to Death’s eternal embrace. In the fourth (“The Field Marshal”), Mussorgsky paints the image of death as a Field Marshal, sending countless youths to the battlefield to meet their end. In four portraits Mussorgsky muses on the indiscriminate nature of death, its impartial and voracious appetite.
Ligeti, in his Mysteries of the Macabre, tells a fantastical story. He creates a world ruled over by a very young King, whose Chief of Police, Gepopo, approaches him to tell him of a great catastrophe threatening to wipe off life from the face of the earth. She wants to inform the king that a huge asteroid is hurtling down to earth. Realizing that this signifies the end of the world, she tries, in great panic, to warn the young King of it. But she is also aware of the worthlessness of her message, and can barely get a word out; she devolves into a fit of sounds and utterances, incapable of delivering her warning. Ligeti creates a farce that laughs at the world, imagining it as a great calamity we must endure. In the process he paints the indelible image of panic in the face of death.
Though it is unlikely we can have peace in contemplating death, the knowledge of its inevitability remains. Through the works of great artists we can grapple with this great unknown and experience vicariously their courageous exploration of that haunting finality. And perhaps through the beauty of their works, we can find, despite the “macabre,” an inspiration for embracing the light of the life we are given.
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