From Russia with Passion: Maria Gambarian in Concert
by Ara Arakelian
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.-In a time when Armenian cultural events in the diaspora seem to crowd the month of April under the banner of "cultural survival," two recent events in Cambridge turned the community's focus to the month traditionally associated with celebrating the birth of the Armenian culture: October.
On October 28, Harvard University hosted a two-day conference on the occasion of the 1600th anniversary of the advent of the Armenian alphabet and the ensuing Golden Age in the history of the nation's art and literature. Then, on October 30, a piano recital was held at the Holy Trinity Armenian Church that exemplified the resilience, ingenuity and the flourishes of both the Armenian art and artist.
The featured performer in the long-standing "Celebrate! Armenian Cultural Heritage" music series presented by the Holy Trinity Church was the distinguished pianist and piano pedagogue Maria Gambarian. Artists and groups presented in the past by the series include such luminaries as contralto Lili Chookasian, violinists Ani and Ida Kavafians, cellist Karine Georgian, pianist Luise Vosgerchian, and the Chilingarian String Quartet.
One of the few pianists of the elder generation representing the Russian piano school still actively concretizing, Gambarian's biography recounts a performing career in decades (five) rather than years. She has worked with such teachers and mentors as the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus and Konstantin Igumnov, both pillars of the romantic Russian school of pianism who also taught the likes of Sviatoslav Richter, Emile Gilels and Arno Babadjanian. Gambarian is a professor at the esteemed Gnessin Institute and chairperson of the piano department at the State University of Fine Arts in Moscow, where she currently makes her home.
Gambarian offered a generous program ranging from Bach to Komitas, whose music was featured prominently in the first half. The Six Dances and Gambarian's own transcription of two songs by Komitas as well as his Divine Liturgy represented the many facets and fascinations of the priest-composer-musicologist. The eloquent "Dances" were offered without a hint of mannerism and the familiar themes from the Liturgy Suite, like Bach's powerful Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue that preceded it, were irresistible in their spirituality and humanity. This was music making from the heart. And while there was a brief spoken testimony-in Russian and English-about the life and contributions of Komitas, the real message was delivered by the music itself.
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to etudes (or "studies") by Chopin and Schumann. But as the performances proved, showcasing technical prowess was not the intent. It was fascinating to witness Gambarian's effortless playing; yet her abilities-honed over many years of practice and experience-were all summoned to serve the music within these etudes. Chopin's Etude in C# minor from the Op. 25 set, also referred to as the "cello
etude," highlights the sonority of the pianist's left hand. It was lovingly
and tenderly performed, as was the challenging G# minor etude from the same set which followed. Here, again, the playing was full of character and passion.
Schumann's fiendishly difficult Symphonic Etudes came next and Gambarian approached them with aristocratic nobility and greatness. From the dark opening theme and its variations to the triumphant finale, she drew many shades of colors from the thickly textured music rich with inner yearnings of a youthful, romantic composer. While some clarity of line was lost perhaps due to the less-than-ideal acoustics of the church, there was direction and perpetual energy aplenty in the march-like finale.
For an admiring audience who showed its appreciation with a standing ovation, Gambarian offered more Schumann (the "Traumerii" from Scenes from Childhood), and more Chopin (the tantalizing "Minute Waltz") that left one craving for more still.
AWOL (Armenian Weekly On-Line) November 26 to December 3, 2005