Penderecki in Armenia

Oliver Condy visits Yerevan for a festival celebrating Polish composer Penderecki’s 85th birthday


Early in February, the Armenian capital city of Yerevan was the first to crack open the Champagne for Krzysztof Penderecki’s 85th birthday year. The Polish composer’s family tree contains Armenian traces (in past interviews, he’s said that the iconic Armenian composer Komitas is one of his greatest influences).

And so, under the umbrella of the Penderecki 85th birthday Festival, Polish musicians joined with the city’s two symphony orchestras and choirs for four concerts of Penderecki’s choral, chamber and orchestral music.

Smbatyan and Penderecki

Central Yerevan is blessed with two fine concert venues: the Komitas Chamber Hall, a concrete 800-seat venue with fine acoustics and host to a concert of Penderecki’s unaccompanied choral works by the spectacularly fine, beautifully blended Hover State Chamber Choir.

Just down the road sits the gargantuan early 20th-century Opera House that houses the 1,600-seat Aram Khachaturian Hall. And it was here that festival’s final concert took place – a performance of the composer’s wildly ambitious Symphony No. 7 ‘The Seven Gates of Jerusalem’ by the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra and various gathered choirs under baton of their principal conductor, Sergey Smbatyan.

Scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass, narrator, chorus and orchestra, the symphony also calls for a couple of tubaphones, an instrument invented by Penderecki specially for the work. Made up of differently-sized horizontal plastic pipes, the ends of which are bashed with, effectively, ping-pong bats, the tubaphone creates a strange, otherworldly hollow sound. And even if their sonic effect was slightly underwhelming, their appearance at either side of the colossal orchestra made for a thrilling sight.

Concert in the Komitas Museum 

Penderecki tells me he’s visited Yerevan dozens of times. It’s not hard to understand why – it’s a beautiful city. Yes, much of it bears the scars of 20th-century Soviet rule, but around each corner are architectural riches: a tiny 12th-century chapel with its ancient inscriptions; grand 19th-century shops fronts and tenement buildings; wide boulevards and modern buildings that hark back to pre-Communist Yerevan with their Armenian decorations and use of the pink volcanic stone that blushes in the setting sun.

Take an early-morning walk to the northern part of the centre (where an astonishing manuscript museum, the ‘Matenadaran’ was built in 1959) and you’ll be rewarded with a view over the city towards the snowy peaks of Mount Ararat, now in modern Turkey, where Noah’s Ark was said to have come to its post-diluvian rest. Ararat is also the name of what appears to be the national drink – a silky smooth brandy that makes a wonderful post-concert digestif.

Short car rides beyond the city limits will take you some staggering sites, including the fourth-century Geghard monastery – Armenia was the first country to make Christianity its official national religion. Originally built to house the spear that pierced the crucified Christ’s side, much of it has been carved directly from the hillside rock.

Geghard Monastery

Just a few miles away sits Armenia’s only-surviving pagan temple, dating from the first century.

But as a stark reminder of Armenia’s darkest chapter, the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum is an upsetting but wholly necessary visit, a reminder of unspeakable Turkish atrocities that saw the torture and slaughter of over 1.5 million Armenians – events that are barely talked about today outside Armenia itself. But it’s also a symbol of Armenia’s fortitude and determination in the face of adversity.

Because despite the ravages of genocide, the loss of so much of its former land to Turkey (plus an on-going war with neighbouring Azerbaijan), Communism and devastating earthquakes, Armenia holds onto its identity and traditions.

I haven’t even mentioned Armenia’s wonderful food and wine, but that’s for another day…

Temple of Garni

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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