Philadelphia hosts triumphant return to community life with live music premiere

Zulal performing inside the sanctuary of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church of Philadelphia, Nov. 14, 2021

PHILADELPHIA, Penn.—The sanctuary of St. Gregory the Illuminator was filled with the healing and soulful sounds of Armenian instrumentals and folk songs on Sunday afternoon as a sold-out crowd gathered for the first in-person musical event for the Philadelphia Armenian community since the start of the pandemic. 

The gathering was presented by ARTolerance, an organization which works to build bridges through music toward peaceful coexistence. It saw the world premiere of “Voyages of Winds,” a piece for duduk and woodwind quintet composed by Vartan Adjemian of Yerevan’s Komitas State Conservatory. The program also featured performances from the vocal trio Zulal and oud virtuoso Ara Dinkjian. ARTolerance’s founder and artistic director, the versatile Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David, was joined by five of his colleagues from the Philadelphia Orchestra: Peter Smith (oboe), Angela Anderson Smith (bassoon), Patrick Williams (flute), Socrates Villegas (clarinet) and Ernesto Tovar Torres (horn). 

“Voyages of Winds” is the rather serendipitous product of chance inspiration. Some years ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra was scheduled to perform the soundtrack to the movie Gladiator, one which features the soulful duduk of Djivan Gasparyan. However, shortly before the performance, the guest duduk player had to drop out, leaving the orchestra without a vital component. It turned to Smith, its oboist, who had just two days to source a duduk and learn to play. Despite the pressing situation, Smith immediately fell in love with the instrument, and after the successful show found himself thinking of ways to combine the duduk’s haunting sound with a classical woodwind quintet. As such interplay is a hallmark of ARTolerance, it was the perfect medium for such an undertaking. The dream became reality when Philadelphia Orchestra supporters Jack and Ramona Vosbikian commissioned Adjemian to create the work. The highly anticipated premiere was set for their home church of St. Gregory’s in April 2020, and we all know what happened next. This creation which emerged from an emergency two-day study session would have to wait almost another two years for its debut, but what a debut it was! 

The assembled crowd for this intercommunal event was welcomed by Archpriest Fr. Nerses Manoogian. He was followed by Bar-David, who described music as “borderless, unrestricted by political or national boundaries.” He referenced the chance he had to play with the Vosbikian Band which first introduced him to the Armenian tradition, in which he found modes and a spirit very similar to his own. For the first piece, his cello was joined by Dinkjian’s oud for a medley of Komitas’ “Alagyaz” and “Chinar Es.” Dinkjian then played some of his own compositions, including instrumentals that expressed his gratitude for music. He was followed by Zulal, whose arrangements of Armenian folk songs exemplified the celebratory nature of the program. One of their songs “Zoulo,” a folk melody from Van, had been taught to one of the trio by her aunt, which as they explained keeps very much in line with the passing of these songs from generation to generation.

Reflecting on the mission of ARTolerance, Zulal described how it is borne out through Armenian culture: “As Armenians, whose folk music and stories have been passed down in part through the oral tradition, we know the great power of this gift. One of our favorite folk themes is that of shared soil, shared home. ‘Mer dan hidev…, tser dan hidev…’ What grows behind my house is what grows behind yours. This one lyric line is perhaps one of the most prevalent in Armenian folk melodies. Sometimes it feels as though it pops up everywhere. For us, it illuminates the link between Armenian humility and hospitality. Gardens and their fruit are meant to be shared, planted together and harvested in unison. Somehow music can transcend so many lines of division and create a space where we feel as though we are all in a common garden.”  

The next portion was the premiere of Adjemian’s “Voyages of Winds,” which featured Smith on the duduk alongside his Philadelphia Orchestra colleagues. Reflecting on the commissioned piece, Ramona Vosbikian described her interpretation of it thusly: “This work, which is played by all wind instruments, is a contemplation on the power of winds as a catalyst for so many things. As they blow, they can carry things all over the world. This effect ties into our remembrance of the genocide, as winds can be a destructive force, one which have spread Armenians to the four corners of the earth. Yet Armenians have successfully taken root in all those places, and we hope that in the future the winds will also spread peace to be shared with people everywhere.” Vosbikian served for 10 years on the board of Bar-David’s first organization Intercultural Journeys, which similarly had a mission to use music to bring peoples in conflict together.   

Ara Dinkjian, Teni Apelian, Anaïs Tekerian, Yeraz Markarian, Peter Smith, Angela Anderson Smith and Udi Ben-David (Photo: Christian Wolf)

The concert culminated in a joyous finale during which all the performers joined together in a celebration of Armenian folk music and togetherness. The audience couldn’t help but join in, spontaneously clapping along with the rhythm and ending the concert with an ovation. Bar-David expressed how grateful the artists are to be a part of live music again “after such a painful and stifling time, which we aren’t quite over with yet. However we will overcome the challenges the pandemic has imposed upon us,” thanking the crowd for their participation. Zulal echoed these remarks, describing their own feelings about the opportunity to take part in the concert: “It was a true pleasure to be able to share our music again, in person and directly. No digital innovation can quite capture the live exchange between listener and musician. When you know that you are journeying directly with your audience, they become part of the art making and the exchange becomes far richer than what can be offered digitally. We may know this well, but it was especially validating to look out at the audience and see that people were really truly with us.” 

Reception hosted by the St. Gregory’s Ladies Guild, Nov. 14, 2021

The excited crowd gathered after the concert in the church hall which had been impressively and beautifully decorated with a musical theme by the St. Gregory’s Ladies Guild, which worked hard for days cooking Armenian delicacies for all to enjoy. Attendees were clearly very happy to see each other again after the long pandemic pause. After such a rousing success, many looked with renewed enthusiasm to the future, expressing hopes more such events will follow, to have their souls refreshed yet again by the Armenian spirit. 

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has worked in Armenia as the English language editor at CivilNet and as a project associate for USAID programs. More recently he served as one of the organizers of the World Congress on Information Technology 2019 Yerevan. He is also a historian who researches and brings to light the long and rich history of Philadelphia's Armenian community.

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