FRESNO — A captivating night of beautiful music of many styles performed by individuals whose musicality was beyond reproach. That’s just one way of describing the concert that was recently presented by the Armenian Museum of Fresno. Dr. Anna Hamre, of California State University (CSU) Fresno, the music director of Fresno Master Chorale and Fresno Community Choir described the performance as “Spectacular. All three artists were simply splendid.” Indeed, any audience member could tell you something similar.
On May 31, an audience of around 230 people — a significant number of whom were non-Armenians — was treated to a concert of duo-piano and soprano at CSU Fresno’s Concert Hall. The concert featured soprano, Anahit Nersessian, and pianists, Naira Shahsouvarian and Maria Amirkhanian. “This is our way of dedicating this program to the memory of all those who lost their lives during the Armenian Genocide,” said Maria Amirkhanian.
The two-hour performance was very well received by the audience. So familiar was some of the music that some audience members could be heard humming tunes that they recognized and connected with. At the end of each set, the performers received a standing ovation and the cheers of an excited crowd.
The first half featured Anahit Nersessian, with Naira Shahsouvarian as her accompanist. The first five pieces were classics of the soprano repertoire such as Cleopatra’s Aria from Handel’s “Julius Caesar”, Lehar’s “Giuditta” and Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro, while the rest of Nersessian’s set was dedicated to Armenian music from the folk, liturgical, and classical traditions. This included Gomidas’ Kele Kele, Yerginkn Ambele and Gakave Yerke and Doloukhanian’s Yeraz, among others. Especially remarkable was her dexterous melisma in her performance of Sayat Nova’s Kamancha, which traversed the entirety of her voice.
Nersessian has a rich and powerful voice, which does not falter in the extremes of her expansive register. Her fortes were breath-taking and so strong as to fill an entire room on a stage shared with a grand piano (and two at full volume). Her coloratura had such steadfast consistency as to make her highest notes incredibly magnificent, but without any sense of being forced or a strain on her voice.
The second half of the concert featured Maria Amirkhanian and Naira Shahsouvarian performing duo-piano with an emphasis on Armenian music. Their set included Bach’s Concerto in F Minor and suite from St. Matthew’s Passion, Avetisyan’s Cherry Tree and four pieces by Aram Khachaturian, notably Sabre Dance from “Gayane” and Aegina’s Dance from “Spartacus.” This magnificent evening was closed by a new arrangement of Rousinian’s Giligia for two pianos and soprano by Karine Gasparyan.
Naira Shahsouvarian served as both Anahit Nersessian’s accompanist and as part of the duo-piano half of the concert. As an accompanist, she showed profound sensitivity to every intricacy of the vocal performance. When there was equal action between the two parts, she would rise to her role, and, conversely, play softly and carefully when Nersessian had to command the stage. Even with the many folk and liturgical songs that were not written or performed with a piano in mind, she made the music feel natural and correct.
When she was brought to the fore in the duo-piano set, her technical capabilities and expressive range in all tempi and registers shone in a captivating manner. The structure of music for two pianos requires each musician to be an accompanist, equal, and soloist at the drop of a hat in a way that has equal legitimacy to the orchestral music that duo-piano pieces are often transcriptions of.
Whatever is said about Naira Shahsouvarian can be said about Maria Amirkhanian. In every position called by her part in the music, she brought technical precision and perceptible intensity to every phrase that was played that night. Her expressive mastery allowed all the familiarity of much of the music to stand out and fill the audience. Remarkable was both her and Naira’s command of the full spectrum of dynamics on the piano in every register.
This was especially present in Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance which demanded intense pianos at times in the extreme octaves of the instrument in the piece’s aggressive, marcato style. “The Sabre Dance, of course, brought the house down. What technique! What mastery!” remarked Hamre.
Personally, I was transfixed by the concert. I was tired and mildly out of sorts, but as soon as the first piece began and the audience settled, I found myself responding to and delighting in every sound that I heard. Two of the pieces from the second half of the concert were pieces that I had played before as an orchestral musician, and I knew them intimately because of that. I, and the people sitting around me, felt a great sense of connection to the music that night. Local student, Nathaniel Drake remarked that, “It was a very fitting commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. What I personally got most out of the concert was hearing music Armenian composers. It is a rare experience to hear, live, multiple works by Khachaturian and works in the Armenian language sung in the medium of art music.”
The Armenian music that was performed was not the only music that the audience connected with; Bach’s suite from St. Matthew’s Passion was included in the second half of the concert. “The highlight was the Bach,” said Hamre, “I was prepared to not like it because I usually don’t enjoy arrangements or transcriptions too much. But this was very special. In fact, the ending (when Naira brought it to a close) was simply breath-taking. I can’t think of a performance moment that has ever moved me more than that one did this evening. She captured the weight of the world in perhaps 15-20 measures. Unbelievable artistry.”