Review: The Aznavoorian Duo Perform Gems From Armenia in a Marvelous Concert

The Aznavoorian Duo gave a marvelous performance at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston on Sunday afternoon. The concert was a celebration of their excellent new CD on Cedille Records, Gems from Armenia (which was reviewed here), the Music Institute of Chicago, and their Armenian heritage.

Cellist Ani and pianist Marta Aznavoorian grew up in the Chicago area. Their upbringing included music training at the MIC; their amazing talent is more proof that this Chicago institution is good at what it does. Ani has become a major concert cellist with appearances around the world. Her sister Marta is currently on the MIC faculty and was recently named Artists in Residence. She is a founding member of Chicago-based Lincoln Trio.

An excellent release from the Aznavoorian Duo.

Gems from Armenia celebrates Armenian composers, and the concert was devoted to the Aznavoorian family’s Armenian heritage. Ani and Marta related how their grandparents fled to America to escape the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during World War I. They became focused on Armenian composers after their first performances there in 2017. Instead of the Beethoven cello sonatas, their audience was more interested in local culture.   

In focusing on Armenia, the Aznavoorian Duo shed light on some previously overlooked pieces, especially the music of Vartabed Komitas, who is considered the father of Armenian classical music. His pieces the sisters played on Sunday ooze warmth and subtly, and their performance brought all of it out.

They also showed how tight an ensemble composed of family members can be onstage. This was especially evident in the Impromptu by Alexander Arutiunian, which they have been playing together since they were children. Family bonds are strong, and they came out in the excellence of this performance.  

Peter Boyer explained his composition Mount Ararat. Photo by Louis Harris.

A high point of the concert–and there were many–was the world premiere performance of Mount Ararat by the American composer Peter Boyer, who was in the audience. He explained how the piece came about and the role COVID-19 played in its commission and recording. He also shared about the importance Mount Ararat has in Armenians’ psyche. It’s where the Bible says Noah’s ark landed, and Armenians have always revered it.

Boyer recalled that Marta had requested a technically challenging piano part, which she nailed on Sunday. Marta also gave a moving and passionate solo performance of Elegy, which Arno Babajanian wrote on the passing of his mentor, Aram Khachaturian. (They saved Khachaturian’s Yerevan for the encore.)  

Other high points came from pieces that were not on Gems from Armenia. Nicocolo Paganini wrote Variations on One String on a Theme by Rossini for the violin’s G-string, but it has been transcribed for the cello’s A-string. It was a perfect vehicle for Ani to show off some fireworks on the fingerboard.

Aznavoorian Duo got a well-deserved ovation. Photo by Louis Harris.

Ani also performed the same version of Amazing Grace that Yo-Yo Ma performed at President Biden’s inauguration. It was a lovely performance of a piece that also has references to Dvořák’s New World Symphony and the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” that Aaron Copeland used in Appalachian Spring. Ani expressed appreciation for having grown up in America.

As they were finishing the four pieces by Komitas that started the concert, I sought out notes about the music in the printed program. I was concerned that there were none. This completely went away when the Aznavoorian sisters themselves provided the descriptions from the stage. This is a growing and welcome development in performances of classical music. The explanation of how the music affects the performers creates a greater connection between the artists and the audience. In this case, it showed how grateful the Aznavoorian Duo is to the Music Institute of Chicago and how deeply personal this music is to their Armenian heritage.

More information about Gems from Armenia can be found here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.