By Artsvi Bakhchinyan
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
YEREVAN/BRUSSELS — Dear Laurence, let’s start our conversation with your father. Before knowing you, I read much about Arpag Mekhitarian, the eminent Egyptologist, who was also involved in Armenian art research and was active in community life in Belgium.
My father was born in Egypt in 1911 and died in Belgium in 2004. His own parents were born in Anatolia: my grandfather, Digran Mekhitarian (1875-1922) was born in Tokat and died in Egypt; my grandmother, Repega Djigamian was born in Marzevan (1896-1945) and died in Egypt at the end of the Second World War. After the death of my grandfather, the family came to Belgium in 1925, I think (mother Repega and the three boys, Arpag, my father, Bared who died earlier, and Mekhitar who died in 2013). My father met my mother, Aimée Briggen, in Switzerland in 1954, and she came just afterward to Belgium to marry him.
I would like to talk about my own experience and how I got in touch with Armenian culture little by little. Even my father never spoke in our family in the Armenian language during our childhood; however, we were regularly in contact with the Armenian community in Belgium. My parents had good Armenian friends and I remember our visits to them and the pleasure taken by my father from talking in the Armenian language, including, of course, with my uncle Mekhitar, his brother. They were always talking in their mother language when they were together.
We had at home a lot of books on Armenian culture and my father wrote also some books on Armenian art, especially on medieval miniatures. I remember also that my father, even though he was not a believer, took me to the church at Christmas and Easter because of his position in the Armenian community (and mostly also because he found the liturgy so beautiful). At that time we did not have an Armenian church in Belgium but there was a liturgy [conducted] twice a year in Brussels. This constitutes for me very deep and moving memories. We were going to some other meetings in our Hay Doun (Armenian House) in Brussels.
My parents were very involved during the 1980s and later with the Armenian newcomers from Turkey and Armenia. They never imposed on us to be in concrete action in Armenian activities, but we knew about their actions in social life for Armenian newcomers. There is still a social center with the name of my father (“Centre social Arménien Arpag Mekhitarian”). The last thing is also that I began to practice the piano, and my father received the works of Armenian musicians. I have everything and step by step I learned some of the music of Komitas and other Armenian composers.
The music fans of Yerevan had the opportunity to listen your piano recitals twice. You prefer playing avant-garde pieces, often with nontraditional interpretations (for instance, playing on piano strings, singing or using multimedia). Do you think that over time piano playing should experience some changes?
I think we need, and it is our duty as musicians, to be open to the new ways the composers offer us. But it is not why we have to deny the past. I love Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy… and many other composers. But the living music of today is the music composed today, and there is still a gap between that music and the audience. Music creation is always in evolution, changing, offering new ideas of playing our instrument, how to use new technology. It will never stop and it is really fascinating to listen to the always new possibilities created by the composers. That’s not why I appreciate all new music but as a professional I feel this interest, curiosity and the duty, as I said before, to be of service to the today’s composers. And I can say more: it is a real chance to be in contact with them because it is the real lively music and they can explain what they wish, what they mean, and what they have the urgency to say in their works.
I taught the piano for many years and the most important thing for me was really the personal expression and wellbeing of my students with the music they played. In that way, meeting the Hungarian composer György Kurtàg through his Jàtekok collection was for me a great experience, not only as he is a lively contemporary composer but as a possibility to know what is essential in playing music. Of course we need a technical knowledge of our instrument and of music theory, but the most important thing is to know the sense, the deep meaning of the sounds we are listening to and we are playing. In that way Kurtàg offered us a lot of possibilities to explore and to test what musical meaning we can apply to every music and every composer throughout the ages and different countries. Music is our internal experience of life. The sound we produce has to be inhabited by the depth of our inner search.
You always played Armenian composers’ works. Do you share the opinion that Armenian folk music and its interpretation are not that suitable for piano? For instance, while commenting on Arno Babajanian’s performance of his own Elegy, famous American pianist Norman Krieger wrote that Rachmaninoff surely would dislike both the composition and performance. Do you think he was right?
I cannot speak in Rachmaninov’s place of course, nor for Norman Krieger. I will never be on a strict limited view. I think each instrument can be the good instrument for playing every music, if there is a good spirit in the playing of the musician.
The best compliment I received one day when I was playing Komita’s dances at the piano is that you could not hear the sound of the piano but something fairer, like a traditional music sound. Of course it was because of the fantastic musical writing of Komitas, but I think in our playing we have to seek always to suggest the right and deep spirit of something fundamental, the deep feeling of what the music means.
You are among those rare musicians of the Armenian diaspora, or rather, world musicians of Armenian origin, who keeps under the spotlight the oeuvre of contemporary Armenian composers. Do you think they can have a certain place in contemporary piano music scene?
My knowledge of contemporary Armenian composers begun only few years ago. For many years I was interested in Belgium in contemporary musical compositions, but not especially in Armenian composers. In 2015 I wanted to play a program with the young generation of Armenian composers and I had the chance to receive scores from some of them (Vache Sharafyan, Arthur Avanesov, Arthur Akhshelyan, Aram Hohannissyan, Davit Balasanyan). In the same period, I asked Belgian composers to write new piano music, in their style of course, but in the spirit of Armenia.
My first concert was for the commemoration of the genocide centennial, and I received a great piece from Claude Ledoux (Saveurs de pierre et de miel), and afterwards from Jean-Pierre Deleuze (Hayastan) and Jean-Luc Fafchamps (Feuillets d’Arménie). It helped me to enter deeper in Armenian musical culture through those echoes from outside. After this concert in Brussels I had the opportunity to come to Armenia for playing as part of the Crossroads Festival created in 2017 thanks to the young Quartertone association. I played also at this occasion a piano piece with electronic music of Franck-Christoph Yeznikian, a composer from the French diaspora.
I am sure that all of that music may have a place in international musical life. My contribution is on a small scale, but now Belgian composers are also involved in Armenian musical life because they are invited to come and give some lectures and master classes as part of the Crossroads Festival. This year we will come to Armenia for the third time, this time with Jean-Luc Fafchamps (after Claude Ledoux in 2017 and Jean-Pierre Deleuze in 2018).
Please tell us about your upcoming projects.
I am continuing to prepare some programs to play in May 2019 in Armenia with Belgian, Armenian and other contemporary composers … and I will play this program also in Brussels.
I am also preparing a lecture on Kurtàg’s music. I met Kurtàg many times a few years ago. I was very interested in his pedagogical orientation that is intimately linked to his entire musical production. In that way I always provide training in contemporary music for piano teachers in Belgium.
I also suggested to J. L. Fafchamps to compose a new piece for duduk and piano, like a rediscovery, a re-reading of this Armenian instrument so emblematic, and I am really curious to discover what can this new sonorities association be in his music.
I have also a new project with F. C. Yeznikian, with his electronic music in the world of R. Schumann in which I will play alternately some Schumann’s pieces.
And in the pedagogical mode, I was asked to prepare a publication of current new Belgian repertoire for young pianists I explored during the last years with my own students and with other colleagues.