Aram’s Armenian legacy

As the 110th anniversary of the birth of composer Aram Khachaturian draws to a close, Maria Roberts reports on what is being done to promote arts and culture in Armenia

Influenced by its neighbours in the Orient, Europe and Russia, it’s little wonder that Armenia is hungry to be known on the global stage. And whilst the country would certainly benefit from more opportunities in the arts, what isn’t lacking in Armenia is spirit: its cultural practitioners are feisty and committed to making a difference, even with limited resources.

Earlier this year I met with the Minister of Culture, Hasmik Poghosyan, at her office in Yerevan. ‘We decided in 2005 to develop the field of culture, but in reality the responsibility was put on us in 2012,’ she explains. ‘We were issued a target that seven per cent of development in the economy was to come from culture.’

Poghosyan adds that for the past year, the department has been putting into action initiatives that she hopes will make a long term impact, especially across museums and music institutions. This focus is a much-needed development: many arts professionals in Armenia point to the lack of quality performing arts education as a reason for the migration of its talented artists. And under the new budget, it’s a complaint that’s being addressed head on.

The 110th anniversary of the birth of a national icon, the composer Aram Khachaturian, has propelled the Ministry of Culture to place cultural education at the heart of its policies. ‘We’ll be concentrating on the education system for everybody and across all ages,’ says Poghosyan. ‘Over the years we focussed on the cultural sphere as a whole and paid less attention to cultural education. Now more attention will be paid to non-formal education and artistic education, as well as the input of compulsory cultural education in the secondary schools.’

She adds that from 2014 national dances will be taught in schools and the government has also made available financial assistance towards string, brass and woodwind instruments for eligible institutions. In addition, festivals where young people can demonstrate what they have learnt will become more commonplace.

‘This year is the celebration of our hero Aram Khachaturian and our obligation and responsibility is to show his skill and talent. This has been achieved by allowing ensembles to make use of his scores without paying for the copyright. In reality the Ministry of Culture has just a small budget to make this happen, but we can say that so far it’s been very effective; a lot of musicians have performed his music.

‘We also have two major projects on the horizon. The first one is that we are printing a major publication on Aram Khachaturian that will be more than 30 volumes, and the second one we will collaborate with Sony to release a collection of 12 CDs – alongside this we programmed a festival and hosted an annual competition, this year for cello.’

Despite Armenia’s ambition and success so far, there are many unique difficulties that mean the country’s arts professionals have to work much harder than their European, Eastern and US counterparts to get noticed. The country has a population of three million, though its diaspora far exceeds this: more Armenians live outside of the country than in it – and between 2011 and 2012 the population decreased.

Touring to and from the country can also be a challenge. Armenia is inhibited by disputes with Turkey and Azerbaijan, which prevent visitors crossing those borders – though flights to Yerevan and Tbilisi (around five hours’ drive over the Silk Road) are plentiful.

One musician taking an ambassadorial approach to Khachaturian’s legacy at home is the pianist Armine Grigoryan, a graduate of the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory and a former winner of the Aram Khachaturian International Competition. She is also a member of the Aram Khachaturyan Trio (pictured), an independent ensemble that is based at the state-funded House-Museum of Aram Khachaturian, where she is director.

Explains Grigoryan: ‘The House-Museum is an important cultural centre in Yerevan because the name Aram Khachaturian is very important in Armenia and a symbol for our culture.’

‘In 2013 the number of visitors greatly increased and this was connected with the jubilee and activities of the House-Museum,’ she continues. ‘As well as traditional events we organised some new ones, such as the International Scientific Conference and participation in the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival, concert recitals with Khachaturian’s students, new exhibitions, the installation of new audio equipment in the museum, and new educational programmes.’

Individually, as part of a group, and also as director of the museum, Grigoryan promotes the works of the composer and Armenian classical music in general. Fellow members of the Aram Khachaturyan Trio include Karen Shahgaldyan on violin and cellist Karen Kocharyan. Says Grigoryan: ‘In 2013, the trio toured the jubilee programme in Armenia, China, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and more than 30 towns in different regions of Russia – we also had the opportunity to perform Khachaturian’s concertos as soloists, performing with different symphony orchestras and famous conductors.’

‘Aram Khachaturian’s works were accepted everywhere with great enthusiasm and excitement, all the halls where we appeared were overcrowded. The interest in our recordings of Armenian music was huge. ‘The jubilee year has certainly enhanced their activities. The Aram Khachaturyan Trio usually average around 50 concerts a year in Armenia, but in 2013 staged around 90 performances. The anniversary programme will continue until 6 June 2014, when the ensemble will perform in Moscow, St Petersburg and a number of venues in Germany.

For the group, music education and spreading awareness of Aram Khachaturian’s work is fundamental to their activities. Says violinist Shahgaldyan: ‘In Armenia we are not only musicians – we also run a lot of charity and vocational programmes, and we have a classical music development foundation that we’ve established over the past two years.’

‘We are promoting Aram Khachaturian internationally by playing a lot of concerts abroad,’ continues Shahgaldyan. ‘Though it’s really not so easy to go abroad from Armenia, compared to our colleagues in Europe who can go everywhere by car.’