Looking for solidarity and solace at genocide centennial

by Tom Vartabedian

Published: Friday March 09, 2012

Composer Hayg Boyadjian.

Lexington, Mass. - Let the music ring. Let it ring loud and clear, uniting Armenians across the universe.

Hayg Boyadjian can't think of a better way to commemorate the Armenian Genocide centennial in 2015 than with music and an appreciation for the arts. After all, he says, it's the universal language.

The Lexington-based composer shared his thoughts upon his eminent career which has resulted in 13 recordings over the past four decades. More recently we sat him down following an Avak luncheon at St. Gregory Church in North Andover after addressing a large noonday crowd.

Since immigrating here in 1958 from Argentina, Boyadjian has carved a prominent niche into the classical music world from chamber to symphonic. A number of his recordings are available through the American Music Center and online through Sibelius Music.

The 73-year-old lives in Lexington with his wife Brigette and is currently working on an "Armenian Suite." The couple has a daughter and two grandchildren. When Boyadjian isn't at the piano composing, he's tuning the instruments professionally.

Q. When did your love for music begin?

A. As a 16-year-old growing up in Buenos Aires. My father was a tailor. My mother handled the sewing. We were four brothers, none of the others musicians. I began listening to classical music and never stopped.

Q. How would you classify your music?

A. Modern classical works that cover this century.

Q. Is there a demand for this?

A. Limited. Even in Beethoven's time, it was limited. More people enjoy this music today than in Beethoven's time due to mass communication and the technology that's available.

Q. Why has it taken so long for people to recognize your music?

A. If you're talking about the Armenian community, people aren't open to modern classical. If I was writing like Gomidas Vartabed, people would know me. Because I use a language that's very modern and difficult to appreciate, my music isn't recognizable as an Armenian suite. If you listen enough and give it time, you'll appreciate it. It's challenging, yet stimulating.

Q. What inspired you to become a composer?

A. I bought a piano at age 18, left Argentina two years later, and had already started harmony and counterpoint. I attended the New England Conservatory in Boston, got a degree in Economics from Northeastern University, and returned to music at Brandeis University studying composition and orchestration. My music appears on 13 CDs, including a solo on the Albany label.

Q. Your most provocative recording?

A. "Thirty-two Variations on Bach" for piano solo --- a 40-minute piece that took a year to compose in between two other works. I work on multiple pieces most of the time, though deadlines and commissions always take precedence. The Bach work will be performed this October at the Gomidas Concert Hall in Yerevan. It's a complex piece that brings Bach to the present.

Q. Biggest highlight in your career?

A. An hour-long piece done in two sections called "Oratorio --- Time of Silence" for symphony orchestra, choir, soprano and speaker. The subject is genocide. It was premiered at Sanders Theater in Cambridge with 60 musicians and a choir of 100. It was the last recording my father heard from me before his death two days later. The piece found his way to Yerevan and broadcast annually for many years thereafter.

Q. Are you approached by Armenian groups to compose music?

A. Only twice over the past 40 years. One was for St. Vartan's Cathedral in New York City, dedicated to the martyrs, and again by St. James Church when poet Hovhannes Shiraz died in the 1980s, a piece for trumpet and percussion which was later performed in Yerevan. I'm better received in the American community and this bothers me.

Q. Tell me about your newest work "Vientos" that has received critical acclaim.

A. In Spanish, "vientos" means "wind." Spanish is one of my languages, along with French, Armenian, German and English. The piece is original, incorporating my entire background, and employs a constant shift in direction with French, Italian and Armenian visages to create harmony. The pieces are intermingled, much like a carpet being weaved, and runs 11 minutes. I wrote it for the musicians performing it --- a commission for guitar, violin and mandolin.

Q. You're working on an Armenian suite?

A. It was originally written four years ago for piano and trombone after a woman from California commissioned it for her son. I later adapted it for the Rivers Music School in Weston, featuring two oboes and piano, then adapted a third piece to include horn and piano which has yet to be performed. Now I've orchestrated it adding an additional minute of music. The CD is in limbo waiting to be released. I was told this could be my signature piece.

Q. Who do you respect as a modern Armenian composer?

A. One would be Yerevan's Dikran Mansurian. He's the most prominent composer of this generation. Another would be Levon Chavoushian, also from Yerevan.

Q. How many times have you been to Armenia?

A. Ten. I go there to visit my composer friends and honor a concert commitment. I also enjoy hiking in Armenia. For me, it's the beauty of the hike, not the destination. Between my wife and me, we've done the entire Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Q. Who might your favorite non-Armenian composer be?

A. This would be like deciding which of my fingers to have amputated or which chocolate to choose from a box. Bach and Beethoven are my pillars --- the foundation of my music.

Q. What would society be like without music?

A. Dormant. No purpose to live. Music stimulates us. It is food for the soul. When I listen to a Chopin waltz, it rejuvenates me. If I don't cry during the last scene of "La Traviata," it's time to give up Verdi. You would have to be a piece of steel not to be affected.

Q. How do you feel about today's music?

A. Some of it is real good with the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga. I also like Beyonce. Michael Jackson was an incredible musician. Instrumentally, I lean toward violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Russell Sherman who lives in my city. Pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim is from Argentina. I heard him as a child and knew he'd make it.

Q. What are your impressions of Armenia?

A. Economically, the conditions are difficult due to the lack of funding. If Armenia had an open border, this would work to its advantage. We've made big progress in terms of lifestyle, compared to the previous generation. The arts are suffering. People don't have the resources to attend concerts. Performers are underpaid. Good musicians leave to play elsewhere. Tourism has been a lifesaver.

Q. You tune pianos?

A. Ever since 1960. On a busy day, I'll tune four instruments. Sometimes I'll play bits of Mozart and Beethoven to test the sound. An average piano should be tuned annually.

Q. Tell me something about yourself that might surprise others.

A. I'm into astronomy. Hayg in Armenian means "Orion" in the constellation --- three stars in a line portraying a hunter. I enjoy studying the stars and find the entire universe amazing with its vast setting.

Q. How should we commemorate the genocide centennial in 2015?

A. With a multi-cultural event that involves all Armenian churches and organizations together that transcends our cause and exposes us en masse to the Greater American community. Let us turn our focus upon the arts and music. Through these mediums, we can convey our feelings in a way that others may embrace. They speak a universal language.

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Gala Danilova will discuss the Karabakh conflict and ongoing de-mining efforts at an LA area event on November 23; for details about this and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America consult the Calendar of Events.