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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Music by Hayg Boyadjian

On Monday evening November 16th, composer Hayg Boyadjian was celebrated in a concert of his work in his home town of Lexington MA. Born in Paris, France in 1938, Boyadjian immigrated first to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to the United States. Not surprisingly, his works have been performed throughout the world.

Besides his formative accomplishments as a composer, Boyadjian writes prose about music, has published his own poetry, and from what I've seen on his web page is a visual artist of considerable talent.

The concert "Music by Hayg Boyadjian" was originally billed to feature several high-profile Boston Symphony Orchestra alumni, but for various reasons those musicians had to postpone. At the last minute Boyadjian substituted other works from his extensive catalogue, and the show went on.

Beginning with Nocturne Number 1 for solo violoncello, cellist Jing Li found the essence of the piece by drawing out the long and dark sonorities of her cello. The piece begins in the low register with a motive of a rising sixth. The interval permeates the dialogue and gradually builds up with intensity and ultimately soars to a lyrical - yet gripping - climax.

The central work of the evening was the first complete performance of all 13 pieces in a cycle of piano movements titled Odessas. Boyadjian had written these pieces over the course of many years as a series of birthday gifts for his grand daughter. The sheet music for each Odessa is published with an associated creative drawing by the composer. Despite the deceptively simple individual titles of the 13 pieces (e.g. A Clown, My Dolls, My Birdie, Adieu Princess), the arch of these these works profile a composer who engages in a wide diversity of musical expression. The works progress as if they were each considered in the context of their place in the ultimate large-scale form.

Behind the child-friendly titles and sometimes audience-friendly harmonic language of the music, Odessas contains a surprising amount of complexity and darkness. True, humorous and happy moments are abound, but not all of the music is light and happy-go-lucky. After hearing the entire cycle performed as a coherent 45-minute collection, one can hear the depth and breath of Boyadjian's 13 year-long vision. Pianist and fellow composer John MacDonald - a long time champion of Boyadjian's work - was musically decisive and articulate in his rendering of these pieces. He performed both on the keys and inside the piano, and MacDonald's art of theatrical timing is uncanny.

I had heard the first half Boyadjian's Odessa piano cycle performed at Tufts University many years ago by Lexington-based pianist Paul Carlson (who was in the audience for this concert). It was good to hear that the complete cycle is soon to be released on CD. But this will be it. The composer had decided to cap his piano collection at number 13, admitting to the audience that "13 is his lucky number."

The concert concluded with Boyadjian's De Profundis - three songs on German text for soprano and piano on texts by Georg Trakl and Rainer Maria Rilke (De Profundis, Menschheit, Der Tod des Dichters). The Germanic poetry clearly inspired the composer to write some moody expressionistic music. In his verbal program notes before the concert, Boyadjian revealed that his wife is a native German speaker, and that was one of his reasons for selecting these poems.

Musically, the songs were full of allusions to tonal and modal harmony. But the reminiscent harmonic landscape supports finely-crafted chromatic melodic lines phrased ever so carefully by the composer to draw us into each stanza of the poetry. Boyadjian uniquely meshes both minor and major modes in a rare kind of synthesized harmonic unity that clearly defines his voice.

Soprano Jodi Hitzhusen and pianist Karen Sauer filled the room with their lush and calming sound in the songs. In addition to being a fabulous singer, Hitzhusen is a commissioned composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist, and a practicing West African hand drummer. She communicated these songs with uncommon intensity, often staring down individuals in the cozy-sized audience with her glaring eyes. The piano part of these songs is not mere accompaniment, but quite often in the musical foreground of the musical dialogue. Sauer and Hitzhusen interacted like musicians who have played chamber music together for a life-time. They were well-prepared.

After the concert the composer, his family, and the musicians met with the public at a handsome reception in the adjoining meeting room of the First Parish Church in Lexington. The event drew out the "Who's Who" of the North-West suburban contemporary music scene. I spotted composers Pasquale Tassone and Pamala Marshall, just to name a few. Noted harpist and Lexington resident Virgina Crumb was on hand as well.

The only downside to the evening was a distracting ticking sound emitting from an antique clock at the rear of the church sanctuary. The clock was given to the church by the residents of the "upper village" in 1869. It's appears to run about 28 minutes slow.

Minor annoyances aside, the historic First Parish-Unitarian Church on Lexington Green is an architectural gem (their minister was an instigator of the American revolution). The overall the ambiance, modern grand piano, and acoustic of the hall are rather good.

Given that several new music concerts had been scheduled for the same evening in Boston, the size of the audience was pretty solid.

The good turn out lends support to my theory that there is strong local support for home-grown composers.