Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian may not be a household name. But in his homeland, in Armenian diaspora communities and in Europe's new music circles, he is regarded as Armenia's greatest living composer. Recently, he's been getting even wider notice.
The taste-making German label ECM has issued four CDs of his music ("Monodia" was nominated for a 2005 Grammy), and a fifth is planned. Within the last month, New York has heard two U.S. premieres: "Con Anima" for string sextet at Merkin Concert Hall and an Agnus Dei for clarinet, violin, cello and piano at Carnegie Hall. And between tonight and Wednesday night, the Glendale-based Lark Musical Society, which sponsors the enterprising Dilijan Chamber Music Series, is presenting "A Mansurian Triptych" -- three concerts programmed to commemorate the 92nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Mansurian's epic a cappella choral work, "Ars Poetica," will be performed tonight at the downtown L.A. Colburn School's Zipper Concert Hall. Selections from his chamber music, including the Agnus Dei, will be played Monday at Zipper. And on Wednesday, orchestral works, including the U.S. premiere of his Violin Concerto No. 2, titled "Four Serious Songs," and his Viola Concerto, " ... and then I was in time again ... ," will be played at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
What audiences will hear is "very strong emotional music," according to Anja Lechner, cellist of the Munich, Germany-based Rosamunde String Quartet, which has recorded three Mansurian works for ECM. "That's maybe why it goes directly to people's hearts."
Mansurian himself believes that music has a spiritual purpose. "There are two main roots to music," he said in an interview this week. "The first one is the religious, Christian aspect, the issue of pain and spirituality, the pain of Christ being crucified and the guilt that comes from it and our relationship to God. The second one is our instinctive search for Paradise Lost. That's what makes music."
Because he shifted between Armenian and Russian, Mansurian was speaking through several interpreters at the Lark Musical Society offices. A gentle, elegant man with flowing white hair, he spoke in a light, precise tenor, often animating his remarks with eloquently shaped gestures that belied the struggle he said composing has always been for him.
"Since childhood to now, my fingertips are bleeding from the conflict," he said. "It was always my personal fight or mission."
Born Jan. 27, 1939, to Armenian parents in Beirut, he moved with his family to Soviet Armenia in 1947 and then in 1956 to the capital, Yerevan, where they settled. He studied at the Yerevan Music Academy and at the Komitas State Conservatory, where, after earning a doctorate, he taught and later became rector.
He won two first prizes in the All-Union competition in Moscow in 1966 and 1968 and the Armenian State Prize in 1981.
Armenia is still his home, but his daughter, Nvart Sarkissian, lives in Glendale, and because his wife, Nora Aharonian, died last year, he plans to spend more time here.
His early works combined neoclassicism and Armenian folk traditions. Subsequently, he adopted 12-tone and serial techniques. His more recent works are a mix of all these influences.
"I have tried to find myself in the old Armenian music," he said. "I have tried to find myself in Boulez's serialism. When you go deep in these traditions, you will find the things that are true to your individual roots. Generally, I compose what's been developing and growing inside me for a long time."
In addition, he said, he has always been drawn to the written word. "As a musician, the Armenian language was one of my first teachers," he said. "One's childhood tongue and the first impressions of language are very important for any musician."
"Four Hayrens," for example, is a setting of Armenian poems. "Ars Poetica" consists of poems by Yeghishe Charents, a victim of Stalin's purges. The title of his Viola Concerto, " ... and then I was in time again ... " is a line spoken by Quentin Compson, the doomed hero of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury."
"I have devoted 10 years of my life to Faulkner," he said, before spontaneously reciting the opening of that novel in Russian.
"He's difficult, but once you go into Faulkner, there is no higher joy. If I were to choose the person who was most significant to me, it would have been Quentin because of his incredible honesty."
Mansurian read the book first in Russian, but upon later reading an Armenian translation, he said, he discovered that the Soviet version had been heavily censored.
"Just like the Soviet state got involved in every other aspect of life, it got involved in translations," he said. "That's how things were done."
Living under the Soviet system, he added, was "some sort of different Faulknerian tale. It was another monumental feeling of loss."
For all his identification with his homeland, Mansurian said he prefers to regard himself as a composer rather than an Armenian composer.
"To be truthful to myself, I have to rely on my genetic memory and my way of praying and my whole being, which is of course very Armenian," he said. "But not in order to be called Armenian -- just in order to be true to myself."
'A Mansurian Triptych'
Where: Zipper Concert Hall, Colburn School of Performing Arts, 200 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. today (choral works) and 8 p.m. Monday (chamber works)
Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Price: $20 to $75 ($15 for students and seniors) for each concert
Contact: (818) 500-9997 or