Friday 1 March 2013

Khojaly – never forgotten

Organised by the European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) last night’s performance (26 February 2013) at St John's Smith Square in commemoration of the 613 men women and children who died in the Khojaly massacre 21 years ago was a beautiful but sombre affair, with the UK premiere of Pierre Thilloy's Khojaly 613 and Fikret Amirov's Nizami Symphoni played by the Orion Orchestra, conducted by Laurent Petitgirard with Sabina Rakcheyeva (violin) and Shirzad Fataliyev (balaban). A backdrop to the performance was a series of photographs taken by Philipp Rathmer giving a face to some of the one million Azerbaijanis, displaced by the conflict. A stark reminder that despite the ceasefire Azerbaijan and Armenia are still at war, and that more than 1 in 10 Azerbaijanis cannot go home and are refugees in their own country.

The strength of feeling of those involved in this project was self evident in the speeches given at the start of the performance by the Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the UK, Fakhraddin Gurbanov; the Chairman of TEAS, Tale Heydarov; and Christopher Pincher from the Azerbaijan All-Party Parliamentary Group; as well as Philipp Rathmer who has talked to the refugees while photographing them and heard their stories about lost loved ones and how they now live their lives.

Fittingly the concert began with Stabat Mater Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 – 1736) which was premiered in Venice the year Pergolesi died. The reaching, poignant melody intertwines in a duet to cry out the words ‘At the Cross, her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to her Son at the last’.

This simple tune, played by the strings and organ of the Orion Orchestra and conducted by Laurent  Petitgirard, was sung by the boys of the Schola Cantorum Liturgical Choir of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. The breathless underpower of boy’s voices against the orchestra gave the Stabat Mater and the following Ave Verum Corpus by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) a haunting quality which would be echoed later in the concert.

Heading forward in time Introduction and Allegro for Strings, by Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934), epitomised the folk heritage identity of Britain by encapsulating a Welsh folk tune within a concerto grosso. There was a lovely balance between the concertino and ripieno especially in the dance sections, and the fugue was nicely controlled by Petitgirard.

But these were only the warm up act for Khojaly 613, commissioned by TEAS and composed by Pierre Thilloy. At 25 minutes long this is a major work, taking fragments of folk songs and folk tradition, juxtaposing them with military marches, and nightmareish storms and elemental nature. The concertino here was Sabina Rakcheyeva on violin and Shirzad Fataliyev on the balaban, with strings and percussion supplying the ripieno. The balaban provided a ghostly breathless echo in the storm and also a mournful lamenting heart of Azerbaijan, while the violin shrieked and screeched against the storms or promoted a memory of cultural identity. Both musicians gave virtuoso performances.

Thilloy describes how he was driven to write this in order to ‘pay a unilateral tribute to the men and women whose flesh and spirit suffered’ in a ‘tragedy that no words can explain’.  He writes that ‘I have been constantly attempting to compose a work in tribute to the victims in order to be at peace’ and this work certainly encapsulated catharsis, leaving emotions raw.

The final item on the program was by the Azerbaijani composer Fikret Amirov (1922 – 1984). Amirov pioneered the blending of western music with mugham, a highly complex art form of classical poetry and modal musical improvisation. Nizami Symphoni returned to the late 19th and early 20th century style of Elgar, but with an Azerbaijani flavour due to the mugham song used as a leitmotif. The tone poem of the first movement blended with the light and fast dance of the second, while the susurration of the third movement ended on a beautiful harmonic violin solo. The final movement evoked a storm which resolved into a dance reminiscent of Grieg and finally provided the release of emotion held from Khojaly 613.

Lastly Petitgirard introduced a short work written by himself for an Amnesty International film over 20 years ago  – featuring a romantic violin solo over a minimalist accompaniment. Called Ecrire Contre L'oubli, which translates as ‘to write not to forget’, it encapsulated everything about this evening and was a perfect ending to the evening.
review by Hilary Glover

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