Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Khojaly 613

Monument to the victims
erected in the Hague, Netherlands
The massacre in Khojaly in 1992 is not particularly secret, if you type the details into Google you can find out a lot of information. The incident has its origins in the on-going clash between Azerbaijan and Armenia over one of their border regions; in February 1992 as part of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, 613 Azerbaijani citizens lost their lives in an event which has somehow been lost to popular consciousness in western Europe. As an exercise in remembrance, The European Azerbaijani Society (TEAS) has organised a pair of concerts which include the premiere of a new work by Pierre Thilloy which combines western classical and Azerbaijani musical traditions. The work receives its premiere on 21 February in Paris, and then the concert is repeated on 26 February at St Johns Smith Square in London. The Orion Orchestra will be conducted by Laurent Petigirard, himself a distinguished composer, with solo violinist Sabina Rakcheyeva and balaban player Shirzad Fataliyev.

Just before one of their rehearsals, I caught up with violinist Sabina Rakcheyeva, conductor Laurent Petigirard and composer Pierre Thilloy to talk about the concert.

It is Rakcheyeva who seems to have initiated the commission to Thilloy. Azerbaijan born but London-based Rakcheyeva contacted Thilloy partly because of his experience with Azerbaijani culture and people. Thilloy explains that he has worked in Azerbaijan for over twelve years, visiting two to four times per year. Originally he was due to spend a month at the French embassy in Azerbaijan, but he ended up staying three years. Thanks to this period he has developed many friends and musician colleagues in the country, he has also learned the principals of the Azerbaijani murgam musical style. 

His new work, Khojaly 613 for violin, balaban, percussion and strings, will combine western classical and Azerbaijani traditional music. The balaban is a tradition Azerbaijani double-reed instrument  made from mulberry or hardwood; when performing the player uses circular breathing techniques. Tilloy explained that the difficulties with combining the balaban with western classical music is that the Azerbaijani tradition is purely oral rather than written. Co-operation with traditional players he describes as opening a door, and to do this you have to have trust which he seems to have developed via a lot of drink and dinners. He feels that the work opens a door between two worlds and, perhaps, a door into a third world.

In remembering the massacre, the work is addressing a subject which is not easy, but for Thilloy it is the nature of composers to take distress and make a transcription of it via art. Also, it would be impossible for him to have a 12 year relationship to the country and not to develop a connection to the problem, everyone in Azerbaijan has someone who is Armenian in the family. Though the original problem is diplomatic and political, Thilloy feels that art can sweeten (the word he used was the French adoucir) the problems and bring acceptance. Thilloy likens the problem to that between Palestine and Israel and that he hopes in the case of Azerbaijan and Armenia that art and making music together can bring something new.

This feeling of acceptance was something that conductor Laurent Petigirard also brought up when I talked to him. He feels that whilst you should not forget the terrible events, that music and performing together can help face the future and provide hope for the future. Petigirard is the conductor of the Orchestre Colonne and in Paris he conducted at a concert which combined the Orchestre Colonne with musicians from Baku in Azerbaijan. What made the event most ground-breaking was the Petigirard's orchestra had Armenian musicians within it, thus proving that it is possible to put people together to make music. 

Petigirard is himself a composer with film scores and stage works to his name, his plans for the concert with the Orion Orchestra include the possibility of using, as an encore, one of his own works which was written for an Amnesty International film on torture. 

Petigirard was asked to participate in the concert because of his links with contemporary music and his sympathy for creating new work. He is also clearly supportive of the way that classical music has developed in Azerbaijan. He talks about an explosion of young classical musicians there, and how the support of the wife of the President means that that there is money for cultural events, so that things are full of strong possibilities. That with support, a small group of excellent musicians could develop into something larger.

The Azerbaijani musical element of the concert will not just be confined to Thilloy's piece. The other main work in the programme will be the Nizami Symphony by Azerbaijani composer Fikret Amirov (1922 - 1984). Amirov came to prominence during the Soviet era. His Nizami Symphony was written in 1947 in memory of Nizami Ganjavi, the 12th century Azerbaijani poet. Amirov was responsible for a technique known as symphonic murgham which pioneered integrating western classical techniques with the Azerbaijani murgham.

Petigirard has conducted Amirov's music before, and in fact hopes to record the Amirov piano concerto with a young Azerbaijani pianist. He describes the Nizami Symphony as a masterpiece, with a lot of virtuoso passages for the orchestra, and he ranks it with works by Barber and Shostakovich. When asked about Amirov's neglect, he does not feel that there is any special case for Amirov. It is simply that that the composer in common with other expressive tonal writers from the mid 20th century such as Martinu and Honegger has suffered an eclipse, partly because of past pressures of the avant garde. In our more polyvalent age one hopes that we can start to appreciate composers like Amirov again.

The concert also includes Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for strings. Petigrard clearly appreciates the combination of these three works for string orchestra from different ages and relishes the contrast between the masterworks by Elgar and Amirov with Thilloy's contemporary response to a very human event.

For further information on the concert see the TEAS website. 
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