Komitas Chants Sung at Metropolitan Museum

By Florence Avakian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — In the magical setting of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the glorious and soulful chants of Komitas were sung by the Hilliard Ensemble. These were a few of the sacred compositions, ranging from the ancient to the modern, performed by this masterful quartet of male singers, in a memorable program on Wednesday, January 22, titled, “Arkhangekos: A Millenium of Music.”

The program had been made possible, in part, by Arax Simsarian, who noted in the written program that it was “in recognition of composer Komitas Vardapet.” This generous benefactor, now 91, had established, while at Aetna, where she worked, a fund to benefit Armenian culture.

More than 650 people braved frigid, icy weather to attend thisspecial program at the Metropolitan Museum on January 22, to hear this famed a cappella quartet which is now on its farewell tour after 40 years of performing to great acclaim across the globe. Due to ice-strewn runways in New York, the group had flown from performances in North Carolina to Philadelphia, then had taken the Amtrak to New York, arriving just in time for the concert, this being their last performance in North America.

Before the start of the program, the performers revealed to WQXR reporter John Schaefer, host of the evening, that in November 2004, the group had been invited to Armenia to record and perform some of the sharagans arranged by the legendary composer and musicologist Komitas. The recording of these sharagans took place in Saghmosavank, a 13th-century monastery which is situated on top of the Khasakh river gorge, from where Mount Aragats is visible.

During the Metropolitan Museum performance, the members of the quartet, countertenor David James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold, and baritone Gordon Jones interpreted the soulful Komitas sharagans, Hays Harg, Soorp Soorp and the Christmas hymn Ov Zarmanali with seamless phrasing, deep spirituality and understanding, together with perfect pronunciation. For the last 10 years, the Hilliard Ensemble had become musical ambassadors, exposing the beauty and uniqueness of Armenian sacred music to such huge audiences.

In addition to Komitas’ chants, the group also performed at the Metropolitan Museum concert, a piece, Lord Who Made the Spring Run, by Vatche Sharafyan, a 48-year-old composer from Yerevan who has been associated with, and become well known through famed cellist Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road project.

In an e-mail communication, Sharafyan revealed that he had first met the Hilliard Ensemble at the Komitas recordings in Saghmosavank, organized by VEM radio studio. “The organizer asked me to compose a special piece for them, and I wrote one based on the fifth century hymn of Mesrob Mashdotz, The sea of our life is troubling me, for which I used three duduks together with the Hilliard. This piece was first performed and recorded by the Hover Chamber Choir in Armenia together with Lord Who Made the Spring Run.”

Sharafyan related that he had composed this piece “in one night” while he was a lecturer at the Armenian Theological Seminary in Jerusalem for four years, where he said he was “entirely surrounded by sacred music and spiritual life.” Both works are in the repertoire of Hilliard, as well as that of Hover, and released in 2013 by LCMS on a CD, titled “In Search of Miraculous.”

The “most important value of Lord Who Made the Spring Run,” Sharafyan noted is its “genuineness, when one does not just pretend to be, but really lives what he is saying, singing or writing about. From this point of view, my piece is entirely exact, and should be sung by the Hilliard whom I really admire for this quality. They are perfect!”

For 40 years, the Hilliard Ensemble has been known for their unique style and virtuosic musicianship in presenting both early and new music. David James, the countertenor of the quartet has commented, “As well as all the music that we have discovered and enjoyed performing over the years, we want to embrace the important relationships and people that have contributed to some of the remarkable landmarks and turning points in our career.”

At the end of 2014, the group will disband, following performances in the US, Canada, Australia, Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.