Gyumri Music School Recovers After Earthquake

GYUMRI, Armenia—The sound of music is alive and well inside the Tigranyan Institute.

The N. Tigranyan Music Institute is enjoying a renaissance after being destroyed by an earthquake 21 years ago in Gyumri.
The N. Tigranyan Music Institute is enjoying a renaissance after being destroyed by an earthquake 21 years ago in Gyumri.

Talented children are playing their instruments behind closed doors while parents gather, wait, listen, and hope.

Inside the main auditorium, a young diva is exercising her voice before an audience that includes Sebouh Apkarian, the artistic director and conductor of the famed KOHAR Symphony Orchestra and Choir.

He’s there like he always is, scouting new talent and lending encouragement. You can’t miss him. He’s the gentleman in the front row with snow-white hair listening attentively and taking notes.

Obviously, he likes what he sees in this young nightingale.

“He’s very supportive to the youngsters who know that being in a program with KOHAR and traveling around the world to perform would be the ultimate,” says Kayane Manougian. “They all want to make a big impression.”

Twenty-one years ago, a devastating earthquake sent tremors and shockwaves through Gyumri and Spitak, claiming some 58,000 lives.

The children here are too young to remember but continuously hear the stories, not like Manougian who experienced the tragedy first-hand and lived to tell about it.

“I was at home with a newborn child when the earthquake struck,” she recalls. “I ran out into the street and saw buildings toppling over. Two minutes can lead to a lifetime of tragedy and hardship. Many of my closest friends were lost. Every time I think about it, I’m devastated.”

Principal Kayane Manougian takes charge of 390 students and 75 instructors in addition to being concertmaster with the KOHAR Symphony Orchestra.
Principal Kayane Manougian takes charge of 390 students and 75 instructors in addition to being concertmaster with the KOHAR Symphony Orchestra.

Like so many others, Manougian pitched in at every interval, helping those in need and rebuilding her city in the aftermath.

The 80-year-old Tigranyan Institute was among the casualties, toppled in ruins. Life was uncertain. Recovery was slow. But they were determined. Trailers served as temporary classrooms amid the rubble along Abovian Street.

“For six years, we worked out of a fallout shelter, then moved into a building with no heat.” Manougian traced back. “Winters were severe. For 15 years, the school operated like that. People were poor. Homes were devastated. The ultimate sacrifice was always being made.”

Today, the institute boasts some 390 students between the ages of 7 and 15, and 75 instructors, housed in an adjacent building that once served as a factory. The lyrical sounds of young soloists are mingled with instruments that conserve the Armenian heritage and sustain its national character.

Not all are traditional pieces. A certain emphasis is placed on such Armenian instruments as the kanoun, duduk, and tar. Choreography is yet another staple.

As concertmaster and first violinist of the KOHAR Orchestra, the 49-year-old Manougian also serves as a role model for these students. It’s more than music here but a way of life. Through performance, careers are established and money is earned—resources that are currently scarce in Armenia.

A nominal tuition is assessed for those who can afford it. Assistance is also met through government circles. The faculty is paid, however slight. Instruments are provided.

Students attend normal school elsewhere, then matriculate here for further education. It makes for a long, but productive day.

Among the notable groups is Yeraz Art, a troupe of pristine young singers which recently completed a successful tour that included the Arsenal Mall in Watertown, Mass.

“We prepare them for the conservatory,” says Manougian. “Many have succeeded and carried the name of Gyumri to prominence. That we like to see. My students mean the world to me. Without them, I am very lonely.”

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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