Armenian Music Stirs Memory File



People often ask me about my preference toward Armenian music. They want to know about my favorite bands of old, my all-time virtuosos, my best concerts, dances, CDs, tapes, and records.

Udi Hrant remembered
Udi Hrant remembered

The discussion could run for hours. We could talk about personalities, events, politics, and books. We could hash out our intimate moments with films, gatherings, and places we may have visited in Armenia, had we gone there.

But nothing stimulates the character more than music. And we have covered the gamut over these past three generations.

Hardly a day goes by when I’m not playing Armenian music, be it classical or dance. A good oud solo is just what the musical doctor prescribed on a hectic day. Sit back, put on the earphones, and drift away to the land of gilded dreams.

My best musical moments are pretty well defined, not necessarily in the order they are being presented but personal highlights.

I still think about that teenaged year when I had just joined the AYF, and off we went to an Olympics in Philly. I was but 19 at the time, and this would be my debut into the dance world. We stomped and swayed to the Vosbikians that evening and it was nothing short of mesmerizing.

The music and musicianship were both unprecedented in that era as time will attest, and we were part of that buoyant era.

The first time I ever saw Mike Sarkisian wasn’t long after that. We had gone to the Club Zara in Boston and there he was with his brother Buddy. We may have been underage or at that 21-year-old cusp and on came the dancing girls. It was a little bit more refined than burlesque, but Mike’s “Road to the Catskills” remained very high and bumpy for years to come.

Datev Gevorkian, a rising talent
Datev Gevorkian, a rising talent

Which brings me to my honeymoon five years later. Never beyond my wildest dreams did I ever think it would be such a unique musical treat. What would be the chances of picking a restaurant in New York along a strip known as Greek Town USA and seeing a solo gig by Udi Hrant?

Yes, that’s what occurred. We were dining freely and in walks this guy with shades, holding a black case. I thought we were in for a mafia assault. The man turned out to be sightless, removed his oud, and played for us the entire evening with hardly another soul in the audience.

I cannot escape the live performance of “Anoush” I experienced at the Opera House in Yerevan. If you want the epitome of opera and classical, discover Armen Dikranian. The recording features diva Kohar Kasparian, which takes my breath away.

While studying in Vienna in 1960, I was the guest at a concert featuring Aram Khachaturian conducting both his beloved “Masquerade” and “Gayaneh” suites. It was an evening to embrace. The following day, he came to visit the Mekhitarist Fathers. A personal tête-à-tête with the maestro and composer? He wanted to know what I was doing at the vank, a young student of 19.

“I came to learn Armenian,” I told the iconic composer. He appeared pleased.

Other intimate moments were shared with a host of golden performers like oudists George Mgrdichian, Richard Hagopian, Johnny Berberian, and Ara Dinkjian; clarinetists Khachig Kazarian and Mal Barsamian; vocalist Onnik Dinkjian; and Detroit kanounist Ara Topouzian, who’s done a lot to promote music in this country and beyond.

I look to the new generation prepared to take the plunge with teenaged talents like Datev Gevorkian who, as an 8th-grader, has already built himself quite the resume as an oud player.

When you’re taking lessons from such masters as Berberian and Barsamian, some of the luster may rub off. Young Datev presented a 45-minute solo concert last December in Merrimack Valley without a note before him. A TV station in Bedford interviewed the lad recently and he handled himself like a true veteran. When he attends Camp Haiastan, the oud is sure to follow.

It doesn’t get much better than hosting a 50th wedding anniversary at your home and having such performers as Johnny Berberian and Leo Derderian perform for your party. The two oudists played the night through as guests were being entertained.

Two other conductors in Greater Boston are worthy of my applause and yours as well. Both were remembered for their choral groups. Rouben Gregorian took the Komitas Choral Society to acclaimed heights. Rev. Oshagan Minasian shared a similar spotlight with his Erevan Choral Society, which continues to this day.

We have much to celebrate in our cultural heritage and music remains a vital component.

Tom Vartabedian

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.
Tom Vartabedian

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