Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Oakland East Bay Symphony
Notes from Armenia Concert, Michael Morgan conducting,
Mikhail Simonyan, violin soloist

Review of the performance of January 22, 2010, published in the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune and other papers of the Bay Area News Group.

By Cheryl North

Armenian-Siberian violinist Mikhail Simonyan strode onto Oakland's Paramount Theatre stage last Friday evening, tucked his violin under his chin, and proceeded unabashedly to win over his capacity audience with his exposition of the fascinating beauty and intensity of the music of Armenia.

The 23-year-old, who looks like a younger version of the Russian Federation president, Dmitri Medvedev, played with the flair of a 19th-century virtuoso idol — the sort that habituated the great stages of Europe.

But instead of St. Petersberg's Mariinsky Theater, Vienna's Musik Verein Hall, or some princely palace in Prague, Simonyan temporarily ruled over the stage of the Paramount movie palace during the Oakland East Bay Symphony's Notes from Armenia concert. Michael Morgan conducted with his usual warmth and elan — and as though he too had a bit of Armenian blood in his veins.

Simply put, Simonyan produced one of the most seductive string tones I've ever heard as he wielded a steady bowing arm artfully over the strings of his 1769 Giuseppe Gagliano violin. His was a tone that seemed to resonate with all the colors and gradations of the sonic rainbow. Whether at pianissimo levels or racing through cascades of virtuosic double-stops and cadenza passages, it penetrated through the hall with laser clarity.

Reaping the benefit of all this vaunted versatility was the D major Violin Concerto composed by Armenia's Aram Khachaturian in 1940.

Only a few bars into the music, and you knew, like Dorothy, that you weren't in Kansas anymore. While native Armenian music falls easy on Western ears, it is not based on the familiar European tonal system. Instead, it relies on an extended system of four-note sequences (tetrachords) with a unique distribution of whole and half tones that leads to an extraordinarily dense, dusky, even plush harmonic coloring.

Highpoints of the Khachaturian were an acrobatic violin cadenza, interestingly augmented by sinewy sounds from a clarinet. After a lamentlike second movement, the third movement arrived like a stampede of wild horses racing across the steppes. The orchestra's thrilling beating-hooves ostinato simmered under Simonyan's unbridled dancelike solo line. His broad grins and occasional hearty foot tapping suggested an Armenian style hoe-down. Even the members of the orchestra applauded at the concerto's close!

The evening's opening work, sounding a little underwhelming in contrast to its concert mates, was Mozart's "Prague" Symphony No. 38, also in D major. Nonetheless, maestro Morgan shaped its contours elegantly, thus illustrating the wonders Mozart could work with a major chord.

Other works on this remarkable program were Edvard Mirzoyan's Symphony for Timpani and String Orchestra, featuring OEBS' able timpanist Tyler Mack, and the Orchestra's excellent string section plumbing the oceanic depths of Armenian harmonies.

Driving, repetitive rhythmic figures and dense brass textures highlighted Ghazaros (Lazar) Saryan's Armenia: Symphonic Panels, followed by Artin Der Minassians' Seemorgh Ensemble (a mixed chorus of singers) as they created a panoply of stirring sounds in two contrasting patriotic songs ——Yerevan Erebooni and Sardarapat — by Edgar Hovhannisyan. Then, as though adding a dollop of caviar atop this festive feast, Morgan roused one and all with a racy encore of Khachaturian's ever popular Saber Dance.

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