By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BERLIN — What better way to celebrate 25 years of independence? The Armenian Ambassador to Germany Ashot Smbatyan chose to focus on the achievements of the present and the hopes for the future, by inviting guests to a concert of the Little Singers of Armenia. Performing in the Berlin Philharmonic hall, a group of 40 youngsters, mainly girls, under the direction of founder and conductor Tigran Hekekyan, presented a program of works illustrating the entire span of centuries of Armenian music, as well as pieces from the international repertoire.
Starting, appropriately, with Glorious Light by Mesrop Mashtots from the fifth century, and two pieces by Komitas, the choir sang both sacred and secular music, from David Halajian, Vahram Sargsyan, Tatul Altunyan and Robert Petrosyan, to David MacIntyre, Claude Debussy, Sergey Pleshak, Richard Adler/Jerry Ross and Joe Garland. A beloved German folk song, performed impeccably in the original, enchanted the listeners.
Following the first six songs, Smbatyan delivered greetings to the guests, who included members of the German Bundestag (Parliament), Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, foreign diplomats, Archbishop Karekin Bekdjian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church in Germany, Armenian scholars Prof. Armenuhi Drost-Abgarjan and Prof. Tessa Hofmann, German-Armenian Society President Dr. Raffi Kantian and other representatives of the Armenian community.
In evaluating the first quarter-century of independence, Smbatyan did not sidestep the difficulties encountered, especially at the outset, under conditions of military conflict and economic deprivation, but stressed the significant achievements in the economic, political and cultural arenas. While Armenians cherish their national identity, they are open to the rest of the world, a fact demonstrated, he said, by the republic’s having welcomed 20,000 Syrian refugees into their country.
Speaking on behalf of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who, together with his Armenian counterpart Dr. Edward Nalbandian, had organized the festive event under their patronage, was Bundestag Member Dr. Gernot Erler (SPD). In his congratulatory remarks, Erler paid tribute to Armenia, which, “as the jubilee concert shows, can look back on a long tradition as a cultural nation,” and thanked Smbatyan for having organized the “days of Armenian culture” in the German capital on this occasion. Armenia, he noted, “reaches thousands of years back into the past” and, “with the elevation of the Christian faith to state religion in the early fourth century, it became the oldest Christian nation on earth.”
Turning to the long history of German-Armenian relations, Erler expressed how “painful” it was to see the dark sides of this common past, citing the “ignominious role” played by the German Empire during the genocide, when the Ottomans’ wartime ally looked the other way as the catastrophe occurred, a catastrophe, he said, “which has naturally left traces also in Armenia’s cultural life.” He referred to the example of Komitas Vartapet, who “lived here in Berlin for eight years, composed German music too and earned his degree in 1899.” On return to Armenia, Komitas collected old church and folk music, thus becoming “the savior of Armenia’s musical tradition.” On April 24, 1915 he was among those deported and, though he barely escaped death, never overcame the trauma.
To illustrate German-Armenian relations, Erler pointed to Johannes Lepsius, who brought the news of the massacres to the attention of the German public, and whose home in Potsdam today serves as a forum for study and remembrance, as well as an international meeting place. Erler said that it was also in light of Germany’s “co-responsibility” that it urges both Armenia and Turkey to seek ways of processing their common history, in the search for reconciliation between the two societies. This may be possible, he suggested, through confidence-building measures undertaken by representative personalities, who could meet “outside the limelight.” In this context he said culture could contribute significantly, through the universal language of music, for example. This is the reason the German Foreign Ministry supports the “Aghet” concert project initiated by Marc Sinon and the Dresden Symphony, engaging musicians from Armenia, Turkey and Germany in works dealing with the massacres.
Erler lamented the fact that the South Caucasus today should be torn by military conflict: “In a region where for centuries a unique variety of diverse cultures not only coexisted peacefully but enriched each other, too often still it is the weapons that speak and drown out the gentle tones of the duduk.” In the crisis situation around Karabach, which Erler considers “perhaps the most difficult conflict in the Caucasus, flaring up again and again,” Germany aspires to play a constructive role. “We want — especially in our role this year as current chairman of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] — to contribute to de-escalation, yes, to overcoming the conflict, and we support the mediation efforts of the co-chairmen of the so-called Minsk Group of the OSCE, namely France, Russia and the USA.” Perhaps, he mooted, culture could play a role, perhaps musicians from all three Caucasus nations could perform together in Berlin. Erler is actively engaged in diplomatic efforts in the region, in his capacity as Coordinator for Intersocietal Cooperation with Russia, Central Asia and the Eastern Partnership Countries (which include the South Caucasus).
After having spoken so much about music, Erler said it was time to return to the concert, and hear the “great Little Singers of Armenia.” In the second part of the performance, the choir overwhelmed the audience with its precision, fine interpretation and sheer joy of signing. Hekekyan’s selection of encores was pertinent. First came Stepan Shakaryan’s Mush, then Let There Be Peace on Earth by Sy Miller. While singing, the choristers moved down from the stage one by one and into the hall, through the aisles, and distributed small bouquets to guests.
On a more personal note, during the reception and buffet that followed, my friend Bea Ehlers-Kerbekian and I had a chance to chat with three girls from the choir. All of them were 16, which means they were born almost 10 years after independence. One of them has been singing with the choir (which was founded in 1992) since she was 4 years old. When we asked them what they wanted to become, one said she would study medicine, the second would become a computer programmer and the third wanted to pursue a career in teaching. Abris!