First two weeks

It is hard winter in Yerevan; the snow on the streets has not melted since I arrived, one night saw temperatures as low as -22! At -13 degrees in the daytime, a city cannot be its most welcoming and entertaining self, and I had no choice but to push myself to get to know the city’s warmer face. In a way, this is a challenge to make the most out of winter in Armenia, and leave at the end of May, knowing more on the conservation of its historic architecture.

I plan to use this blog to share my humble impressions on architecture and architectural conservation in Armenia. It is not meant to be a definitive archive, nor a thorough report; just a mix of the personal and architectural- however that goes.

Looking back at my first two weeks, it was the familiar that I sought after: I’ve gone to listen to the Yerevan Philharmonic Orchestra twice already, at the Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall. There is a certain relief at seeing the strings, the woodwinds, the brass, etc exactly where (in Istanbul, in my case) you left them. The musicians may change but the layout is the same and the music familiar… and so for two hours I feel as if  I am not in an unfamiliar, frrrrrreezing city.

At my first concert here (the second night I arrived in Yerevan), with my habit of pushing open every door in any historic building, I found myself in the upper tier (2 tiers above my allocated seat), which turned out not to have been part of the ticket sales. Before I had the chance to sit, the orchestra began playing the first movement, and with nobody in sight I stood at the very top for a minute or so, smiling. Maybe one cello player may have seen me, or not. Then, I quietly sat at the very centre front of that tier. They don’t call that level the ‘gods’ for nothing: it was lovely, getting to watch the symphony like choreography from that level, all the movements more visible than from the stalls. At my second concert, I counted about 88 musicians- one big corps de ballet!

The concert hall or ‘Opera’ is at the heart of the city, with many roads leading to it. It is named after the founder of symphony music in Armenia; Alexander Spendiaryan, and opened in 1933 (the first performance being Swan Lake!). It was designed by Alexander Tamanyan, who deserves a separate blog post, with all he has contributed to the architecture of the capital. Tamanyan is buried in the Komitas Pantheon, by the Komitas Institute. I suppose the city has its own version of ‘six degrees of separation’? In any case, I hope to watch Anush here on the 26th! The opera has heating, hidden behind delicate iron grills, but in the cold winter it is not enough to warm such big a space, so hot air cannons (for want of a better word) are used. The magenta and violet LED lights unfortunately do absolutely nothing to the otherwise beautiful interior. The 1920-30’s is the age of subdued, pastel colours! Please! Yerevan is far from being a smoke-free city, and in the interval many of the musicians and audience were smoking on the lower floor.

Another concert I went to was at the Komitas Institute. The Komitas Institute’s performance hall reminded me of La Tourette, which I visited only months ago, in the way that modern architecture-meets-Christian symbolism approach was used. The importance given to classical composers and music here compared to Turkey today is impressive and to be envied. The Komitas Institute opened fairly recently, in January 2015, complete with a concert hall, space for permanent and temporary exhibitions, a research institute, concert hall, music studio and library. The architect is Arthur Meschian, himself a musician, and also architect of the new section of the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts building which houses the precious collection of manuscripts in Yerevan.

Another concert I enjoyed was in the Khachaturyan House-Museum. The Oshakan Quartet was performing, and I was especially intrigued because the leader of the group, Grigor Arakelian plays an instrument which looked and sounded similar to the viola da gamba (I took lessons to play the bass gamba when I was an undergrad student, a whopping 15 years ago!). Turns out, it was a custom design, with 6 strings, sized somewhere between the alto-tenor gamba. The quartet played Armenian compositions, some which reminded me of Italian and French Renaissance music circa 1500. The concert space was a large multi-purpose space, part of the museum which opened in 1982. The facade of the building is said to be framed with five arches reminding tuning forks. To me, they are a contemporary take on Romanesque arches.

Later in the week, reading that there were many familiar painters at the National Gallery, I made my way there and was amazed at the wealth of European (labelled ‘foreign’) paintings in the collection -especially one magical Rubens! A painting by Alexander Tyshleri (an Ukranian-Jewish artist), created in 1961 of a woman with a head/hat full of architecture (sound familiar?) struck a chord with me. Later, I found out that Tyshleri has other paintings with a similar theme. Doing further research on Tyshleri, I learned that he worked on decoration of agitprop trains, trams and the streets and squares of Kiev on Communist holidays. This is a subject close to my heart, considering one of my first public presentations at my alma mater, the Courtauld Institute of Art, was about Soviet propaganda porcelain, as part of the ‘Circling the Square’ exhibition.

I plan to write my next entry on the sad yet extremely widespread practice of façadism in Yerevan’s historic buildings. And probably another one on the markets, and another on monasteries…phew. Will do.