April 26, 2015
Centenaries of wars afford us opportunities to revisit these tragedies and experience human history afresh – and, above all, to remember and learn from these terrors how to make peace. Alas, buried deep in World War I’s history is the Armenian Genocide of 1915, during which over a million Armenians were so cruelly forced to march to their deaths that their descendants are called “living martyrs.”
Fresno’s commemoration of the Genocide culminated in a Fresno Philharmonic concert featuring the Fresno Master Chorale and Fresno State Concert Choir in a new work, Cantata for Living Martyrs, by Serouj Kradjian. Perhaps this newly-premiered work will take its place as a monument next to the great War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Like the War Requiem, the Cantata gives voice to reflections old and new. The opening movement, “The Dance,” is a grisly depiction of the beginning of the Genocide, a massacre of Armenian women, as told by a German missionary and based on a poem of Armenian poet Siamanto, one of the first victims of the April 24, 1915, massacre. Siamanto’s voice reminds us of another voice cut down by war, Wilfred Owen, whose poetry is used in the War Requiem. Mercifully, Kradjian takes us to the intimate “I Bless You” for his second movement, based on a memoir by Aram Haigaz, as a mother, bereft of four of her five children, blesses her last child as he sets out to escape the terror and start a new life overseas. The third movement, “Denial & Rebirth,” opens with the choir whispering “no genocide” blending in with a growing torrent of percussion. A Joseph Schwantner-like interlude leads to the closing text by Fresno’s own William Saroyan on the creation of new Armenias around the world by the Armenian diaspora. While I treasure the optimistic end of the Cantata, the work ends too easily and seems to disconnect with itself as Kradjian resorts to old-fashioned tonal triumphalism.
The Cantata for Living Martyrs unites with two works by fellow Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian in this Genocide commemoration, the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from Spartacus and the passionate Violin Concerto, so ably performed by soloist Catherine Manoukian. Also included in the program were short choral works by Yekmalian and Arutiunian (unfortunately, only last names given).
The evening at Fresno was a terrific commemoration. Hats off to Fresno Phil maestro Theodore Kuchar and Fresno State and Fresno Master Chorale director Anna Hamre and to all involved in envisioning and planning this event. Fortunately, if you missed it, this program will also take place today in San Francisco in the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre at 5:00 this evening. It is worth the trip there to be a part of this important commemoration of history.