Composer and conductor Loris Tjeknavorian talks to Rob Barnett
Rob Barnett. Where were you born?
Loris Tjeknavorian. I was born in Boroujerd, a city in the ancient province of Lorestan in the Zagros Mountains of Western Iran. Though far from Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other Persian cultural centres, Boroujerd was known throughout Iran as a very cultivated town. My grandfather was in charge of the health services there.
RB. How early did you begin to learn music and which instruments?
LT. I started taking violin lessons at the age of 7.
RB What do you recall of your life as a child?
LT. As an only son in a practical-minded, survival-oriented immigrant family, my dreams of dedicating my life to music caused a lot of conflict at home. I was quite a black sheep - or white crow, as Armenians say. As a result, my childhood was not an easy one. I had a romantic and sensitive temperament, and an unruly spirit. Add to this the chaotic environment of post-war Tehran. Circumstances for immigrant musicians from Eastern Europe, Russia, Armenia, etc., were depressing; most were destitute, itinerant, playing in coffee houses; many became alcoholic out of desperation. Although Armenians are music-lovers, my parents were understandably worried for my future. Naturally, they wanted me to become a lawyer!
Childhood was a struggle on so many fronts, but the rich experiences I had in that archaic oriental world - all the daily spectacle of cruelty, love and heartbreak - shaped who I am today.
RB. How did Iran view classical music when you were growing up?
LT. As a form of Western culture, classical music was quite alien to the sensibilities of the vast majority of Iranians, who have their own unique, rich musical tradition. That said, there was never a sense of antagonism towards it, and along with cinema and theatre, which were largely introduced to Iranian society by Armenians who had fled Soviet Armenia around 1920, it developed a strong following as Tehran rapidly developed into an increasingly worldly, cosmopolitan and modern society.
RB. Were your parents at all musical?
LT. None of them were, with the exception of my grandfather, Dr. Karakashian. He was a medical doctor trained in Constantinople and was a passionate amateur violinist. He fled Turkey with his young family in order to escape death as an Armenian, and was obliged to rebuild his life and career in Iran. He was my earliest and greatest mentor, encouraging me to play the violin and later to pursue my musical education in Vienna.
RB. What was the source of and spark for your interest in music?
LT. When I was 5 I heard a performance of an Armenian traditional music ensemble in Tehran. I was transfixed by the violin player and when we returned home I took two pencils as my bow and fiddle, placed a newspaper on a chair as my stage, and started imitating the performance.
I always wanted to become a composer and conductor. But I was self-taught, without any proper education. At 14 I conducted a mixed choir, and at the age of 16 I organized my first orchestral concert, whereupon my parents realized that music was my one true love in life, and consented to my going to Vienna.
RB. What were your artistically significant experiences as a child?
LT. Well, listening to performances by immigrant musicians from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Armenia left a profound imprint. I first experienced classical music through old 78s as a child - it took maybe 8 or 10 discs to listen to one Beethoven symphony! And they weighed several kilos. Also, I owe an immense debt to the American Point 4 cultural centre for providing the opportunity to listen to super-large LPs and to attend 16mm film screenings of the likes of Toscanini and Rubinstein performing with the NBC Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, etc.
My sensibilities were informed by the art of the everyday: the operatic manners of my family, the bright colours and rank smells of the street, the frankincense and ancient hymns in the old neighbourhood church, the drama and emotion of the Iranian Zurkhaneh and Muharram commemorations.
Indeed, more than anything else, I was influenced by those three Near Eastern traditions: The music of the Armenian liturgy, which is a kind of sacred opera centred around the life of Christ; the unique, ritual music of the Zurkhaneh, or the “House of Strength”, with its powerful martial rhythms; and the stirring music of the sacred Shia holy day of Muharram, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. These three traditions have influenced me from childhood until today.
RB. What are your thoughts about the role of music in life and also the interaction of music with life?
LT. Music is inseparable from the spiritual lives of Armenians, as it is for so many peoples. One speaks to God through song. Songs were the pastime of the people. People would sit around and sing songs at night. Sing to cry. Sing to remember. There were songs survivors had created on their way to the desert, into exile. To sing was to live. Lives were written in songs, and now they are forgotten like songs.
For me, music has not merely been a way of life, but life itself. It has given voice to my longings and given me solace in my despair.
RB. In your teens who were your mentors – close contact and spiritual?
LT. My Grandfather was my only real mentor as far as music goes. Growing up in an Armenian immigrant ghetto where the adults, my own father included, were emotionally and psychologically scarred by the atrocities and losses they had experienced, left a deep and lasting mark on me and my generation. There was a tremendous, unspoken anguish among the grown-ups, which often found its expression through anger. Music was my escape, as were the revolutionary politics of the time. The streets of South Tehran were my other mentors. As a teen I got into a lot of trouble during the revolutionary unrest of the 1950s. I was arrested many times and once was nearly killed coming home from the conservatory. My family finally relented and sent me to Vienna in part to keep me out of trouble, as well as for the sake of my musical desires!
After my grandfather, my greatest musical mentor was Carl Orff, whom I met while studying in Vienna. I showed him sketches for my opera Rostam & Sohrab, the first with a Persian libretto. He liked it and was so generous as to arrange a scholarship for me to live in Salzburg to compose it. While I was in Salzburg he also suggested that I write short pieces for piano based on Armenian music for the Orff-Schulwerk, which I did. I wrote around one hundred pieces, a number of which were later published by Verlag Schott. Some of them were also published by Novello, and were selected by the Associated Board of Music in the UK.
RB. What and who would you say were your formative influences during your teens?
LT. All the girls I fell in love with at school. I was very romantic and I composed lots of tunes for them.
RB. Who were your favourite composers?
LT. During my youth I loved Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky ...
RB. What about favourite works - and what makes them special?
LT. During my 50-year career I have conducted more than 500 works and recorded nearly 100.
It is difficult to list my favourites but off the top of my head I can mention Beethoven’s symphonies, Brahms’ symphonies, The Rite of Spring, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Mahler’s symphonies, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and The Miraculous Mandarin, Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, Rachmaninov’s piano concertos, all Sibelius’ symphonies, Shostakovich’s symphonies 1, 5 and 10. And, of course, Richard Wagner. I could keep going …
I love music that has passion, colour and rhythm. Purely intellectual music is not my cup of tea.
RB. Who do you consider to be the most unworthily neglected composers and why?
LT. Scriabin, Kodály, Max Reger, Kabalevsky … Perhaps they never found the right champion.
RB. I’d be interested to hear about the composers whose works you would like to record for the first time and why?
LT. Those I’ve just mentioned - and for the reason I mentioned. Also, I would like to explore the music of Miklós Rózsa, who is best known for his wonderful work in Hollywood, like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, for which he won an Oscar. And speaking of Hitchcock, I would also like to record the work of Bernard Hermann, who incidentally wanted to perform and record my Dances Fantastique for three pianos, celesta and percussion ensemble, in New York before he passed away, shortly after finishing work on Taxi Driver I believe. My own composing career began with writing film scores - I wrote over thirty documentary and feature film scores in the early 1970s in Iran.
RB. What role did the BBC play in your life as a conductor?
LT. The BBC’s interesting and unusual summer Proms programme and the regular telecasting of live concerts were very inspiring and educational.
British television generally has been very kind to me, especially Granada TV in Manchester. They sponsored my very first conducting debut, premiering my Piano Concerto with David Wilde and the Hallé Orchestra, around 1973. Granada TV Manchester later began and ended their broadcast every day for two years with the suite from my opera Pardis & Parisa. The head of the classical division at EMI Classics once told me that the reason he wanted to release my recording with the LSO of my ballet Othello (in 1984), was because he stayed up late every night while living in Manchester to hear my music at the end of the programming!
RB. Are there any works you feel have been misrepresented on disc and would sorely wish to re-record with yourself conducting?
LT. Not that I can think of.
RB. What five of your concert performances do you most wish had been recorded and why?
LT. Let’s see. The orchestral/choral version of my first symphony, Requiem for the Massacred (the original is scored solely for solo trumpet and percussion, which I recorded with the London Virtuosi and was released on Unicorn in 1975)
The performance of my first violin concerto with Ralph Holmes and the LPO, which I also hope soon to record with my son, Emmanuel Tjeknavorian. The “Zareh” guitar concerto, which had such a memorable premiere, performed by the great Pepe Romero and the Nebraska Chamber Orchestra.
My Third Symphony, which I had dedicated to the dream of Armenian independence during the Soviet era. And my Fifth Symphony, which was dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia in 2001.
RB. What future does the symphony orchestra have?
LT. The future of the orchestra depends on the ability of classical music to be adopted by cultures around the world, in places like China, India and the Middle East. It depends on a continuity of shared values, regardless of race or religion, from Bach to the present. The symphonic tradition is the culmination of European culture, much like the pyramids were the culmination of ancient Egypt. It is as fragile, and possibly as fleeting, as any flowering. Created initially by and for an educated elite and paid for by the nobility, it depends today on an educated public, and government and private support. In short, the future of the symphony orchestra, like civilization itself, depends on education.
RB. What role do recordings play in your life?
LT. As I mentioned earlier, they played a pivotal role in my own education. They brought classical music to Iran, and shaped the course of my life. Subsequently I have made almost 100 recordings. In the 1970s I was as an exclusive recording artist of RCA, and have recorded for EMI, Philips, ASV, Unicorn, Chalfont, as well as Iranian recording companies. You could say recordings are an inseparable part of my life.
RB. What role do you feel that recordings should play in listeners’ lives?
LT. I would like to think that recordings can act as ambassadors of classical music - as gateways to a life in music, as they were for me. I would hope that they might inspire listeners in Africa, in Asia to pursue musical educations and to keep the tradition of live classical music going throughout the world. Based on my own experience, recordings are seeds, not trees.
RB. Over the years a number of musicians have frowned upon making recordings - what is your perspective on the world of classical recording?
LT. A recording is like a photo album or an art book. It is a nice souvenir but never a substitute for experiencing the energy and drama of a live performance shared between the musicians and the audience.
RB. Are there any questions you wish I had asked?
LT. Music is 99% hard work and technique and 1% inspiration, which comes from the Creator. I pray I will keep getting my 1%.
RB. If you were to be marooned on a desert island which ten CDs or LPs would you take with your and please tell me why for each disc?
LT. There are so many great works, but if I had to choose one composer, it would be J. S. Bach.
RB. So far as the outside world is concerned you have not made classical recordings for twenty years - why is this? Would you like to record more? In the 1970s and then the 1980s-1990s you were recorded by RCA and ASV. What happened?
LT. For the past 15 years I have concentrated on composing, and on editing and cataloguing my compositions. I have over 80 works, consisting of operas, ballets, symphonies, choral music, chamber music, concertos, etc. Altogether my scores total about 20,000 pages. I miss conducting however, and I would like to return to the podium and start recording again.
RB. Your ten lessons to aspiring conductors?
LT. 1. Learn music from the score, not from the recordings.
2. Do not parrot the interpretations of other conductors.
3. Stamp the music with your own personality and feeling.
4. Do not conduct from memory, unless you have a photographic memory.
5. Be ahead of the music, instead of going along with it.
6. Be very economical with your hand gestures because it produces better ensemble and sound.
7. Do not try to impress the audience.
8. Always keep a professional relationship with the musicians.
9. Be adventurous and tackle works that are not familiar.
10. Try to premiere works of new and young composers.
RB. Which unknowns (to most music-lovers) among your fellow conductors would you commend to orchestral managements? I ask this because attending concerts in the North of England I have encountered conductors not known elsewhere who to me mysteriously never made it to be noticed by the great orchestra managements or record companies: I think particularly of John Longstaff in Sheffield but there are others.
LT. This is true. Unfortunately, the careers of young musicians are mostly in the hands of managers. Most artists don’t have the chance to be represented. I personally have struggled throughout my career mostly without proper representation, and have forged my path through my own efforts and hard work. Artistic excellence and originality are sadly not always rewarded in this world, while mediocrity often is.
RB. Do you give conducting classes - can it be taught?
LT. I taught conducting while I was head of the Orchestra and Opera Department at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. Like everything else you can learn the technique, but you must have something personal and real to say; you must have passion and feeling.
RB. It’s invidious to ask you but please name those conductors you believe will be foremost in five and ten and 25 years time.
LT. Difficult to say. Thanks to recordings, it is my hope that new generations of music-lovers will rediscover the giants: Lorin Maazel, Carlos Kleiber, Karl Böhm, Sir Adrian Boult, Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Dimitri Mitropoulos.
Also, I hope audiences will rediscover Alexander Melik-Pashayev, a first rate Soviet Armenian conductor at the Bolshoi who made fantastic performances of Russian symphonic and operatic repertoire.
RB. I recall seeing recordings you had made (symphonies of Terteryan and Khachaturian) offered for sale as CDs by the Armenian Philharmonic. Are they still available? I can no longer see them on the APO site?
LT. Unfortunately I do not know. I recorded these for ASV. Maybe they have not been reissued. I believe some have been reissued on other labels.
RB. What do you see as the role of the record company in classical music?
LT. As I mentioned, it was thanks to old LPs that I discovered the wonders of classical music in Tehran as a boy. So, based on my own personal experience, the record companies have been key in making music accessible to people in every class of society, and across the globe, preserving a vast repertoire of great performances for all time, and for all peoples. It is fair to say that the record companies have helped popularize, and thus save, classical music.
RB. People have predicted the end of the CD: what’s your perspective?
LT. I’m not the one to ask. I’ve never been a collector or audiophile. Recordings have been a means to an end, not an end in themselves. People are still mourning the demise of the LP at the hands of the CD. The dark warmth of the former was replaced by the cold brightness of the latter. It is the irony of technological progress that something important is always lost for what is gained.
RB. What are your views on the accessibility of music over the internet and through mp3 players? Is this a debasement of the currency or is that opinion pompous elitism?
LT. Accessibility to music is a good thing. But it seems the internet, the computer, all this bombardment of information and stimulation has shortened our attention spans. As a result people have become worse listeners. The digital age has changed our experience of time, made us less patient. One needs patience to listen. One needs time. The internet is great for Beyoncé, but not for Bruckner.
RB. Listeners are always fixed on music but what insights do you have into earning a living in the music profession. How does it work - does it work?
LT. A career in music is like a game of Snakes and Ladders. One moment you are at the top of your profession, the next, you are tightening your belt. It is a constant struggle. You must keep your faith. You must have passion. You must never give up. Work hard and believe in miracles.
Images courtesy of Loris Tjeknavorian