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No New Abnormal

Tag: armenian music

A Riveting, Poignant Collection of Alicia Terzian Microtonal Symphonic Works

One of the most spellbindingly edgy orchestral releases of the past several months is violinist Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings, streaming at Spotify. Each is a prime early example of the paradigm-shifting microtonal work she would immerse herself in throughout the decades after she’d completed the former in 1955. Beyond the sheer catchiness yet persistently otherworldly quality of this music, both works are also rich with the slashing chromatics common to Terzian’s Armenian heritage.

The first movement of the Violin Concerto begins with a gorgeously ominous chromatic riff but quickly dips to pensive, sustained violin lines over misty stillness. Orchestra and soloist match Terzian’s determination to cover all the emotional bases here: a dancing heroic theme; vibrato-infused longing; and striking contrasts with the bassoon, oboe and full ensemble of winds against the soloist. After a deliciously blustery crescendo and some deviously orchestrated fugal moments, the music calms and the harmonies grow starrier, microtones coming into closer, uneasier focus. Gintoli’s matter-of-factness in the surrealistic yet ironclad tunefulness of his cadenza toward the end is one of many of his high points here.

The hauntingly windwept second movement is based on a plaintive song from the collection of the great Armenian composer and musicologist Komitas Vardapet, a father telling his daughter that her mother has died. Slowly, conductor Vladimir Lande develops an anthemic drive; again, Gintoli nimbly negotiates between resolve and persistent tension over a dancing pulse, which comes broodingly full circle.

The concluding movement begins with a gusty, astringently enveloping, rather bellicose theme, taking on more of a puckish quasi-Tschaikovskian bounce fueled by percussion, harp and high winds. Gintoli takes centerstage in the bucolic waltz that follows; the ensemble take it out with a defiantly marionettish strut. 

The Three Pieces for Strings date from a year earlier: it is astonishing how Terzian had already concretized her visionary style by then. Few western composers have written such memorable melodies utilizing harmonies more sophisticated than the traditional scale. The first part of the triptych, Sunset Song comes across as a stark Armenian melody in heavy microtonal disguise, calming to hazily echoing atmospherics.

The Pastorale with Variations begins by following a circling trajectory, but more rhythmically, before a lullaby of sorts drifts in. The distantly wary conclusion is one of the album’s most stunningly catchy moments. Momentary stillness and suspense alternate with a jaunty edge in the finale, a country dance.

While Terzian is revered in the microtonal demimonde, and her music has been widely performed, it deserves to be ubiquitous. Almost seventy years after she wrote these pieces, the world is still catching up with her.

Violinist Movses Pogossian Pulls Together a Stunning, Uneasy Album of New Armenian Classical Music

It’s astonishing how influential Armenian music has been, considering how small the country is, not to mention the pre-World War I holocaust there which resulted in the murder of as much as 85% of the population and most of its intelligentsia. While Armenian culture has thrived throughout the global diaspora, in the past hundred years the country managed to withstand a stifling Soviet occupation and emerged with wellspring of new music. Violinist Movses Pogossian‘s new album Modulation Necklace – streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates a series of intense, powerful, edgy works by 21st century composers from throughout the global Armenian community.

Artur Avanesov’s somber, stately, acidically crescendoing Quasi Harena Maris begins as a microtonal string quartet played by Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violist Morgan O’Shaughnessey and cellist Niall Ferguson. The composer enters, on piano, with a brooding minimalism as the strings recede to wisps and washes. His fierce block chords shift between dark neoromanticism and unsettled close harmonies, the strings echoing the dichotomy between anthemic intensity and relentless, blustery unease. The sparse, clustering suspense on the way out is chilling. On one hand, there are echoes of the great Danish composer Per Norgard; on the other, this is like nothing you’ve ever heard. What a showstopper to open this album.

The quartet of Avanesov, violinist Varty Manouelian, violist Scott St. John and cellist Antonio Lysy play Ashot Zhrabyan’s Novelette. The ache of the string introduction is more visceral here, Avanesov pouncing in as they reach a horrified peak. Hazy atmospherics alternate with bracing swells, together and individually, the pianist punctuating the storm as it passes through and then returns with a marching vengeance. A stabbing, suspiciously petulant insistence peaks out, then the stern strings take over and end with an unexpectedly quiet triumph.

Avanesov, Manouelian and Tyler deliver Michel Petrossian‘s A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire with equal parts individual playfulness and a tight cohesiveness, yet one which remains unsettled until a starkly decisive conclusion. It’s an exploration of identity in an increasingly syncretic world. Have we lost a heritage, or are we creating a brand new, more universal one? The answer seems to be yes to both questions.

The UCLA VEM Ensemble: Hwang and O’Shaughnessey with violinist Aiko Richter, cellist Jason Pegis and mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen tackle Artashes Kartalyan’s Tekeyan Triptych, a setting of poems on longing and posterity by Vahan Tekeyan, a major 20th century figure. In the liner notes, Segen gets high marks from the ensemble for her Armenian pronunciation; the dynamically shifting music echoes late Debussy, with melodies that range from the baroque to Armenian traditional melodies, most anthemically in the second number.

Saxophonist Katisse Buckingham and percussionist Dustin Donahue’s take of Ashot Kartalyan‘s five-part Suite for Saxophone and Percussion shifts from kinetic high/low contrasts, to jaunty bits of vibraphone jazz, a hint of furtive suspense, a beautifully bittersweet ballad and a booming, dancing coda. Avanesov ends the album with seven miniatures from his Feux Follets collection, which range from warm neoromanticism, to lingering minimalism and biting Near Eastern modes. If this is typical of what’s coming out of the Armenian world now, we need to hear more of it!

An Exhilirating, Revelatory Carnegie Hall Debut by the Aizuri Quartet

In their Carnegie Hall debut last night, the Aizuri Quartet played an exhilarating, “wonderfully quirky” program, as violinist Miho Saegusa grinningly characterized a lively, animatedly conversational performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 64, no. 2. And that wasn’t the highlight of the night. The suite of Komitas’ Armenian folk songs, via a colorful Sergei Aslamazian arrangement, were often gorgeously poignant. And Paul Wiancko‘s 2016 triptych Lift, an “ode to joy,” as violist Ayane Kozasa put it, was a thrilling, ceaslessly bustling, distinctly urban choice of coda. Wiancko is a cellist by trade: his work for strings takes maximum advantage of all those instruments can offer.

The theme of the night was “locally sourced” music inspired by the composers’ home turf that also resonated with the group members. Cellist Karen Ouzounian explained that the night’s five dances collected by Komitas – a Near Eastern musical polymath and proto Alan Lomax– were “a musical link for a lot of families in the diaspora to a distant home…a tiny window into Armenia.” Growing up in Toronto, she’d developed a passion for the repertoire, something the group clearly share.

The wistfully waltzing song without words they opened with set the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the night, lit up with Saegusa’s sparkling pizzicato. They’d revisit that plaintiveness with the third piece, a distantly Viennese-tinged waltz, Kozasa adding aching intensity with a solo toward the end. In between, a kinetic, celebratory number featured forceful call-and-response and a nimble pizzicato bassline from Ouzounian. The acerbic fourth tune, with its uneasy, Iranian-tinged modalities and stormy gusts, morphed into a jauntier waltz that set the stage for a bounciy vamping conclusion.

In the Haydn, violinist Emma Frucht got to indulge in some unusual single-string voicings that the composer had written for a string-playing buddy. The group reveled in the occasional puckish, peek-a-boo moment and coy instants of anticipation: they’d really taken the quartet apart to find all the best jokes. Dynamics were very hushed in the quietest passages, so that when the group really dug into the Romany-inspired minor-key phrases that Haydn would inevitably smooth out, the effect was all the more striking. Deft handoffs of neatly interwoven counterpoint between the instruments became more animated as the music grew more straightforwardly triumphant, to a playful coda.

Wiancko’s triptych had a cinematic restlessness, a hive of activity built around several intriguing thematic variations. The ensemble kicked it off memorably with a shiver of harmonics, quickly hitting a bustle that brought to mind Charles Mingus’ mid-50s work. Seemingly tongue-in-cheek rounds of pizzicato gave way to circular, Philip Glass-ine phrasing and some of the night’s most unselfconsciously lustrous harmonies between the violins. As the piece went on, lively swoops and dives along with a long series of short, colorful solo spots for each of the instruments mingled with hazy atmospherics, Debussy-esque echoes of ragtime and a return to a frenetic cityscape to tie up any possible loose end. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd exploded with a series of standing ovations.

The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York gig is Dec 15 at 11 AM at Subculture, playing a program TBA; cover is $20, which includes coffee and breakfast snacks. Concert Artists Guild, who sponsored this show, also have a characteristically innovative series of performances from future stars of the serious instrumental music world. Their next one is Feb 11, 2020 at 7:30 PM back at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with pianist Yi-Nuo Wang playing works by Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Brahms, Chen-yi Lee and Liszt; tix are $30.

The East West Trio Deliver a Stunning, Haunting, Armenian-Inspired Performance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Witnessing organist Marina Omelchenko slowly work her way up through the eerie chromatics of an ancient Armenian lament last night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was nothing short of sublime. It became even more so when duduk player Oganes Kazarian, situated at the opposite end of the church, joined the somber majesty with his meticulously modulated, mournful phrasing. Throughout the concert, whether playing against the organ, with soprano Tehmine Zaryan, or with both, he employed such a wide-angle vibrato that no matter how horizontal or enveloping the melody got at times, his inflections were always adding an otherworldly sparkle of overtones.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a duduk – the rustic, plaintively woody-toned Armenian oboe – paired with a church organ? Just the premise of the concert was impossible to resist, and for the most part the three individualists of the East West Trio delivered on the promise of such a deliciously textured sound. Kazarian kept his modes muted and reserved throughout a rapt duet with Zaryan toward the end of the performance. When paired with Omelchenko, especially in her arrangements of a handful of Armenian hymns and traditional numbers, he was much more forceful, a brand-new stop in an almighty beast, the church’s Kilgen organ.

Zaryan hit a spine-tingling crescendo at the end of a Schubert aria early on; a concluding Andrew Lloyd Webber ditty was impossible to redeem. But getting there was an often breathtaking rollercoaster ride. Omelchenko began with cinematic and then cantabile Bach and then worked her way to triumph with all the stops out, through the stately power of a Tcherepnin overture. Yet despite all the fireworks, the quieter Armenian melodies were the most hauntingly resonant.

St. Patrick’s has not only a very eclectic series of free organ concerts, typically at 3:15 PM on Sundays, but also an intriguing series of classical performances that often involve the organ in some way. The next one is this Sunday the 27th at the usual time with organist Heitor Caballero playing a diverse program of works by Bruhns, Guilmant, Sebastian Duron and Flor Peeters.

Transcendence and Joy with Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes

Every year here, sometime in December, there’s a list of the best New York concerts from over the past twelve months. Obviously, it’s not definitive – nobody has the time, and no organization has the manpower to send somebody to every single worthwhile concert in this city and then sort them all out at the end of the year.

But it’s an awful lot of fun to put together. Legendary Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian has a way of showing up on that list just about every year, and he’ll be on the best shows of 2018 page here, too. This past evening at Barbes, he and his Taksim ensemble – Adam Good on oud, son Lee Baronian on percussion, Mal Stein on drums and Sprocket Royer on bass, tucked way back in the far corner – channeled every emotion a band could possibly express in a tantalizing fifty minutes or so onstage. Surprise was a big one. There were lots of laughs, in fact probably more than at any other of Baronian’s shows here over the past few years. There was also longing, and mourning, and suspense, and majesty and joy.

Baronian came out of Spanish Harlem in the late 40s, a contemporary of Charlie Parker. Considered one of the original pillars of Near Eastern jazz, as he calls it, Baronian immersed himself in both bebop and what was then a thriving Manhattan Armenian music demimonde. In the years since, he literally hasn’t lost a step. Much as he can still fly up and down the valves, and played vigorously on both soprano sax and clarinet, his performances are more about soul than speed and this was typical. Some of his rapidfire rivulets recalled Coltrane, or Bird, but in those artists’ most introspective and purposeful moments. And neither dove headfirst into the chromatics to the extent that Baronian does.

He opened with a long, incisively chromatic riff that was as catchy as it was serpentine – a typical Baronian trait. Good doubled the melody while Royer played terse low harmonies against it, the percussion section supplying a solid slink. Baronian’s command of Middle Eastern microtones is still both as subtle and bracing as it ever was as he ornamented the tunes with shivery unease as well as devious wit.

Throughout the show, he’d often play both soprano and clarinet in the same tune, then put down his horn and play riq – the rattling Middle Eastern tambourine – while other band members soloed. The night’s two funniest moments were where he led them on boisterous, vaudevillian percussion interludes with as many cartoonish “gotcha” moments as there was polyrhythmic virtuosity.

Where Baronian made it look easy, Good really dug in and turned a performance that, even for a guy who’s probably one of the top half-dozen oudists in New York, was spectacular. Brooding, ominously quiet phrasing quickly gave way to spiky, sizzling tremolo-picking, pointillistic volleys of sixteenth notes and a precise articulation that defied logic, considering how many notes he was playing. Getting the oud sufficiently up in the PA system helped immeasurably – oud dudes, take a look at this guy’s pedalboard, for the sake of clarity and a whole lot more.

The night’s best number also happened to be the quietest and possibly the most epic – considering how many segues there were, it sometimes became hard to tell where one tune ended and the other began. Baronian played this one on clarinet, looming in from the foghorn bottom of the instrument’s register and then rising with a misty, mournful majesty. As the song went on, it took on less of an elegaic quality and became more of a mystery score. Royer’s spare, resonant groove, Stein’s elegant rimshots, the younger Baronian’s otherworldly, muted boom and Good’s shadowy spirals completed this midnight blue nocturne.

They picked up the pace at the end of the show, taking it out with a triumphant flourish. On one hand, that Baronian chooses Barbes to play his infrequent New York gigs (he’s very popular in Europe) is a treat for the cognoscenti, especially considering how intimate Brooklyn’s best music venue is. But if there’s anybody who deserves a week at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, it’s this guy.

Watch this space for upcoming Baronian Barbes gigs. In the meantime, Good is playing one of his other many axes, guitar, with slashing, careening heavy psychedelic band Greek Judas  – who electrify old hash-smuggling anthems from the 30s and 40s – tomorrow night, Sept 8 at Rubulad. It’s a lo-fi loft space situation with a Burning Man vibe – fire twirlers, space cake and absinthe could be in the picture. Cover is $10 if you show up before 9; email for the Bushwick address/info.

Vigen Hovsepyan Reinvents Stark, Impactful, Frequently Haunting Armenian Themes

The little nation of Armenia seems to have more good musicians per capita than almost anywhere in the world. So it makes sense that one of the most intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past year is singer/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan’s Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music, streaming at Spotify. Hovsepyan plays guitar, duduk and percussion and sings in Armenian in a strong, expressive baritone, backed by bass, percussion, oud, cello, and traditional reeds including duduk and zurna. What differentiates this collection from more traditional versions of these tunes is the imaginative arrangements, with edgy, crescendoing solos from throughout the band.

Armenian music is notable for blending the enigmatic microtones of the Middle East within melodies in the western scale. Minor keys are prevalent, along with a lot of what’s essentially implied melody: these themes are simple, stark and striking. The album’s opening number, a dirge, features rising star duduk player Arsen Petrosyan along with intense, otherworldly vocal harmonies. Another Armenian reed star, zurna player Harutyun Chkolyan is featured on a more lively later track. 

The spare, stately, syncopatedly swaying Nare features understatedly incisive, spacious oud work from the great Ara Dinkjian, up to a surprise trick ending. Hoy Nar is a robust work song – a riverboat tune, maybe? – updated with echoes of 90s trip-hop and a long, bracing, uneasily trilling duduk solo.

Garegin Arakelyan’s austere bass riff mingles with Havard Enstad’s sparse piano in the ballad Es Gisher, building to aching close harmonies between strings and reeds. Hovsepyan’s voice rises to an angst-fueled peak over a menacing low string drone in Ani; then the strings build a storm on the horizon. The gracefully dancing, austere Tal Tala features breathtakingly spiraling tar lute from Miqayel Voskanyan against a brooding backdrop.

The moody ballad Gulo sways slowly over an elegant 6/8 guitar/bass groove over resonant, distantly troubled piano: it’s the most Lynchian track here. Drdo opens with a darkly pensive exchange between Hovsepyan’s emphatic vocals, cello, frame drum and duduk, slowly coalescing with an overcast grandeur. The Immigrant blends dancing, Balkan-tinged strings and echoey, Romany-inflected vocals, with a spaciously mournful duduk solo.

A tense low bass drone, a melancholy cello solo and Hovsepyan’s misterioso flamenco-tinged guitar fuel the slow, troubled, cinematic sweep of Lusnyak Gisher. Likewise, the closing cut, Sareri begins with cumulo-nimbus atmospherics and then settles into an elegaic sway. Considering the history of Armenia and how many cultural treasures were lost in the holocaust there a hundred years ago, and before, it’s no surprise how dark most of this music is. But you don’t need to speak Armenian to be drawn into this unsettling masterpiece.

Souren Baronian Brings His Agelessly Soulful Fun and Middle Eastern Jazz Gravitas Back to Barbes

Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, there are guys younger and a lot less accomplished who’ve received that honor. No time like the present, people…while there still is such thing as the NEA.

Now in his eighties, the Armenian-American multi-reedman, percussionist and bandleader is absolutely undiminished as a soloist, one of the greatest pioneers and most soulful players in the history of jazz, let alone the Middle Eastern jazz  he’s made  a career in. He’s bringing the latest edition of his long-running Taksim ensemble to an intimate show at Barbes on August 10 at 10 PM; you should get there early.

A listen to Baronian’s 2002 album Ocean Algae – streaming at Spotify – offers a good idea of what he does in concert, and he still plays a lot of stuff from it live: it’s one of his best. Much as Baronian is known for unselfconscious depth and gravitas, he also has an often ridiculously surreal sense of humor, something that bubbles up when least expected. This album has three-quarters of Baronian’s original 1975 version of Taksim, including the rhythm section of bassist Steve Knight and drummer Mal Stein.

A funky clickety-clack groove underscores Out of Exasperation, which Baronian opens with a moody, spacious soprano sax solo before the oud and rhythm section kick in. The late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud solo goes ratcheting over growly bass and drums while Baornian’s son Lee provides extra boom on the low end with his dumbek.

The seven-minute title track is a taste of the some of the liveliest stuff to come out of the ocean, the bandleader alternately jubilant and uneasy as the rhythms shift on a dime. Magnoukian switches out the slashing tremolo-picked clusters of the first song for rapidfire hammer-ons and a surgically slashing attack on the strings.

Gooney Bird, a big concert favorite, could also be called It Ain’t Got a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Oud – after Baronian’s done choosing his spots, veering between the blues scale and Middle Eastern modes, Magnoukian takes the song closer to Turkey with his jaunty pastoral picking. The wry, surfy drum turnarounds are a favorite trope.

Toxic Tonic, an almost thirteen-minute epic, contains everything from echoes of medieval English folk, to jaunty Lebanese pastorale passages, surrealistically altered blues riffage on the oud, a psychedelic drum interlude that would have made the Grateful Dead jealous, along with all kinds of delicious microtonal sax flutters and dives. There’s also a subtle joke early on that will have you pulling on your earbuds.

Five For Chick – a Chick Corea homage, it would seem – is a lot jauntier, at least until the senior Baronian takes it further into the shadows, veering between modes as Magnoukian grounds it with his spiky, machinegunnig riffage. Then he takes a poignantly searching, rapidfire oud taksim into the aptly titled Conversation, the bandleader switching to kaval (wood flute), Magnoukian eventually edging everybody out.

Jubilee is the album’s catchiest and most upbeat track, a shuffling mashup of New Orleans second line and dusky levantine influences with a tastily bustling oud/percussion interlude. Baronian’s moody duduk (wooden oboe) improvisation leads into Desert Wind, another concert favorite with its catchy, circling clarinet riffs, subtle echo rhythms and one of his most poignant solos here.

11th Hour is a lot more carefree than its title implies, although Magnoukian brings in some unease, at least until a completely unexpected south-of-the-border detour. Jungle Jive is the most joyously warped number here, the band taking it methodically further east out of a dixieland-flavored jazz waltz. The band follows a similar tangent on the final cut, Time & Time Again. from Knight’s uneasily bending bass intro through Magnoukian’s tensely suspenseful solo to an intertwining oud/sax conversation. This album is as rich as it is long, and it’s very long. Onstage, Baronian hasn’t lost any stamina either.

Timeless Middle Eastern Jazz Icon Souren Baronian at the Top of His Game in Montreal

One of the most rapturously gorgeous, unselfconsciously soulful albums released over the past year is Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, by ageless multi-reed sage Souren Baronian’s Taksim. It’s a high-quality archival release that goes back a few years. Now in his eighties but absolutely undiminished  – his performance at Golden Fest this past winter was mind-blowing – he’s the reigning patriarch of Middle Eastern jazz. Here he plays soprano sax, clarinet, kaval flute and also percussion.

Baronian opens the set with a brooding but kinetic soprano sax melody, adds a few swirls as his son Lee Baronian’s dumbek flickers, then the late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud goes sprinting over Paul Brown’s terse bass and Mal Stein’s similarly emphatic drums. The song is Gooney Bird – Baronian’s titles tend to be on the colorful side.

The bandleader’s rapidfire chromatic runs alternate with incisive blues riffage and flashes of bop as Magnoukian digs in with a bassline of his own; then the senior Baronian goes in a jauntier direction echoed by the band as the oud drives them to a lickety-split crescendo out.

These songs are long; there’s a lot going on here. The second track is Ocean Algae – look out, this stuff is ALIIIIVE, and possibly psychotropic! Strolling, then marching, then scampering, the sax’s airy precision sometimes brings to mind an Armenian Paul Desmond until Baronian brings his achingly intense microtones into the picture as Magnoukian and the rhythm section scramble for shore.

Magnoukian opens the next number, Floating Goat, with a solo taksim, switching out the fast and furious tremolo-picking for an expansive, spacious but no less edgy attack. Then the band launches into a phantasmagorical, Monkish strut until Baronian’s sax pulls them into slightly sunnier, more straightforward territtory over a pouncing 7/8 groove. Magnoukian’s spiky, pointillistic waves fuel an upward drive until the drums and percussion provide a hilariously rude interruption.

Baronian’s pensive clarinet gives a moody, subtle latin tinge to the slinky, midtempo Rayhana, a feast of low-midrange melismatics. His poignant, windswept solo is arguably the album’s high point, echoed with similar expansiveness and gravitas by Magnoukian.

Switching from clarinet to kaval, Baronian and Magnoukian take 8th Sky further south toward Egyptian snakecharming terrain as the rhythm section percolates, peaking out with a fervent Rahsaan Roland Kirk-ish solo. The album winds up with the bustlingly chromatic Time and Time Again, Magnoukian’s bristling solo handing off to Baronian’s sax, which dips and dances to a joyous conclusion. Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, we should start a petition – while the NEA still exists.

If you’re looking for the album online, good luck – however, it is available at s shows, and when he’s not on the road, Baronian typically makes Barbes his home base. And there’s a more recent, similarly magical Manhattan show from last year up at youtube as well.

Dynamic, Exhilarating, Haunting New Armenian Sounds from Miqayel Voskanyan

Last night Drom was packed with a chatty, boisterous crowd who’d come to party and take in a surrealistic, often haunting, absolutely uncategorizable show by Yerevan-based tar lute player Miqayel Voskanyan and his band. Unlike your typical Iranian tar player, Voskanyan holds his high on his chest, like a giant ear of corn that he’s about to take a big bite out of. While there were a few crescendos during his roughly hourlong set that were packed with high-voltage flurries of tremolo-picking, Voskanyan plays with a great sense of touch and subtlety. He saved his wildest chord-chopping for when he really needed it, and even then, he didn’t give the impression that he was working that hard (beyond frequent trips to the side of the stage to guzzle water, anyway). Otherwise, his attack on the strings was nuanced, and judicious, with a masterful use of space. Guys who can play as fast as he does can’t usually chill with an equal degree of mystery.

Behind him, the trio of Arman Peshtmaljian on a Nord Stage 2 keyboard, Gurgen Ghazaryan on bass and Movses Ghazaryan on drums shifted between rhythms and idioms with a similar, understated dexterity. There were interludes that drew on Near Eastern art-rock, and folk-rock, along with frequent allusions to current-day Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music. And there were some moments, usually when Voskanyan left a verse or two to the band, that veered closer to jazz territory. Yet this isn’t a rock band, and it’s definitely not a folk band, even though they amped up a couple of singalong numbers with the crowd at the end.

Armenia is small, about the same size as Jamaica. Like reggae, Armenian music has a vast, global influence: Voskanyan’s compositions reflect that scope. He and the band opened with a pretty straight-up American funk tune, except that it sounded as if it was being played on a banjo. Then Voskanyan went up the fretboard, where the microtones of the Armenian scale creep in, and the effect was as magical as it was strange and unexpected. There were many, many moments like that throughout the rest of the the evening.

From there he sang vocalese over an uneasy, slow rainy-day theme that drew more heavily on chromatics and microtones. To western ears, his most riveting number was a slow, utterly inconsolable film noir-style chromatic instrumental that could have been a Steve Ulrich composition. Voskanyan’s songs without words are very evocative: a fireside tableau was more bittersweet than you might expect. The biggest hit with the crowd was a TGIF-themed epic that shifted from a brisk, flurrying 12/8 rhythm through all sorts of changes, a long keyboard break  – the only place where Voskanyan really lost the crowd – and then he brought them back in a split second with an enigmatic hailstorm of a tar solo. At the end of the set, he brought up accordionist Sevana Tchakerian, who alternated between terse washes of sound and a rhythmic pulse, and also provided spellbinding, acerbic vocals that were a perfect counterpart to Voskanyan’s confident baritone.

Voskanyan and band are currently on US tour, sponsored by AGBU-YPNC. The next stop is tomorrow night, April 7 at 9 PM at St. John Armenian Church, 275 Olympia Way in San Francisco; cover is $30/$20 stud. Drom, the East Village’s mecca for sounds from every part of the globe, has their usual slate of eclectic acts coming up. There’s a metal show tonight; Greek songwriter Kostis Maraveyas plays with his darkly bouncy rembetiko and latin-flavored band tomorrow night, April 7 at half past eleven for $20. 

Hauntingly Stark Armenian Sounds from Arsen Petrosyan

One of the most hauntingly beautiful albums of recent months is Arsen Petrosyan‘s Charentsavan: Music for Armenian Duduk, streaming at Storyamp. For those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern music, the duduk is the world’s smallest low-register instrument, smaller even than the bass ukulele made famous by the Handsome Family‘s Rennie Sparks. With its ancient, otherworldly, resonantly woody tone, the duduk has been a staple of Armenian music for thousands of years. Over the past several decades, it’s also insinuated itself into the arsenal of many reed players around the world: Matt Darriau, for one, played it on a few numbers at his most recent couple of Barbes shows.

Petrosyan’s album is spare and relentlessly intense, played in minor keys, typically with very sparse percussion, lute or drone accompaniment. The instrumentals mix originals with ancient themes, many of them rescued from dusty archives where the music had been hidden away under Soviet occupation. On the opening track, Eshkhemet, he establishes a meticulously ornamented, woundedly expressive approach, in this case subtly embellishing a minimalist minor-key melody played over a single-note drone. The second track, Hazar Ernek follows the slow, funereally swaying pulse of a dombek goblet drun. On Naz Par, Petrosyan sails up into the instrument’s clarinet-like upper range, this time employing both percussion and what sounds like a harmonium lingering in the background.

In an imaginative piece of orchestration, Tapna Kervan Prtav sets Petrosyan’s imploring upper-register melody over tersely pulsing concert harp. He plays over a stately lute-and-guitar arrangement on Lullaby for the Sun, by contemporary oud mastermind Ara Dinkjian, finally rising out of an opaque, jazz-tinged pulse with an almost horror-stricken intensity. Javakhki Shoror opens with simple, doubletracked duduk, warily flurrying melismatics over a steady high drone until the drums and a full string orchesra kick in and then all of a sudden it’s an uneasy dance.

The gentle, lush, catchy pastorale Kessabi Oror features flurrying tar lutes: it’s the most distinctly modern piece here, contarsting with the 1100-year-old folk tune Havik, an austere, desolate tableau. The final cut, Hairenik is a plaintively airy, medieval-sounding ballad for duduk and harp.

The press material for the album compares Petrosyan to the instrument’s most prominent 20th century virtuoso, Jivan Gasparyan, whose transcendent and reputedly final New York concert this blog was privileged to cover in 2014. Those are titanic shoes to fill, but Petrosyan is clearly up to the challenge. Fans of Armenian, Middle Eastern and Balkan music shouldn’t pass up the chance to give this a spin, and anyone inclined to low-key, melancholy sounds should do so as well. The album is available in the US from Pomegranate Music.