Loris Chobanian, Composer

1981 cleveland arts prize for Music

As a child of Armenian heritage, born in in 1933 in Mosul, Iraq, where his father was an oil company engineer, Loris Ohannes Chobanian grew up with a deep appreciation for the importance of a people’s culture and ancient traditions, embodied in the stories handed down through many generations.

The massacre of more than a half million Armenians in the early years of the 20th century looms like a shadow behind Chobanian’s 1985 composition for orchestra, The Sacred Tree. The work, which takes its title from the words of Chief Black Elk (“. . . the sacred tree is dead”), is, says the composer, about “the death of a culture, the death of a way of life.”

“Although the work could be performed without a soloist,” he writes, “at the end of the composition eight measures are repeated by the strings as an accompaniment, inviting the Native Americans to sing their song.” The composer also cites the admonition of the great Sioux Chief Luther Standing Bear (1865–1939): “It is well to inform other races that the aboriginal culture of America was not devoid of beauty.” Chobanian clearly believes, with Standing Bear, that modern society can be “rejuvenated” by the infusion of what the great Lakota spokesman called “Native schools of thought.”

Valley of the Sun, composed in 1997 for the Groton Central School Band, was inspired, writes Chobanian, “by the Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas, the Aztec and Maya cultures of Mexico and the Inca of Peru. The music, which uses many types of drums and simple flute-like instruments,” is meant to evoke the sounds of a festival, procession or special event such as a coronation. He deliberately left the title a little vague, he says, “so that the student performers will try to find out more about all three cultures.”

Komitas—the Tortured Soul is Chobanian’s moving three-part threnody for a composer-priest and ethnomusicologist revered as the father of modern Armenian music who suffered a breakdown after witnessing the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. (He died 20 years later in a Paris hospital.) Based on a traditional melody Father Komitas had collected, Chobanian’s composition “perfectly captured the sadness and anguish of the scholar’s plight,” wrote Mark Satola in his Plain Dealer review of the 2001 premiere by the Baldwin-Wallace Strings under Dwight Oltman, “its agitated middle section succeeded by a reprise of the opening bars for a conclusion suffused with serenity.”

Professor of composition and guitar and Composer-in-Residence at Baldwin-Wallace College’s music conservatory since 1970, Chobanian has had many pieces performed there and around the U.S. The orchestral version of his Armenian Dances was given its premiere in 1977 by the Boston Pops Orchestra; Lieutenant Kosmusov’s Dream, composed the following year, by the Elysian Trio at Severance Chamber Hall; while Voyages, a concerto for trombone and wind symphony orchestra, was commissioned and introduced by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra.

Besides some 20 compositions for full orchestra, Chobanian, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Louisiana State University and a Ph.D. in music from Michigan State, has also produced a good deal of music for band and chamber ensembles featuring a variety of instruments and combinations of instruments. Among them are Dream Sequence (two vibraphones and two marimbas), The Snake Charmers (two oboes, two Bb clarinets and percussion), Intersecting Circles (for alto saxophone and percussion ensemble), and The Enchanted Forest (for flute ensemble).

Among several pieces commissioned by the nationally acclaimed Cleveland Chamber Symphony is Chobanian’s ravishing Sinfonietta for Cello and Chamber Orchestra (1989), written for and performed by cellist Regina Mushabac, a respected colleague on the B-W faculty for whom Chobanian has composed several pieces. In November 2005, the cellist chose to celebrate her own 30th anniversary at the conservatory with the world premiere of Chobanian’s Divertimento, before an audience that included more than 40 cellists from 10 states.

But Chobanian may be best known for the works he has composed for his own instrument, the guitar—indeed, two, three or four guitars—and, in at least two instances, its older cousin, the lute. Many of these compositions are available, last time we checked, on recordings at Amazon.com. In Concierto del Fuego (Concerto of Fire), he “explores the darkly luminous intensity of flamenco in a modernistic setting,” writes Mark Satola, who notes that Chobanian, though classically trained, has long been fascinated by the Spanish guitar.

Songs of Ararat, commemorating the mountaintop in Turkey on which Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest, was given its world premiere at the 1983 Quebec International Guitar Festival by the Baldwin-Wallace Guitar Trio; Dowland in Armenia, by the eminent lutanist Paul O’Dette in Toronto the following year. The popular guitarist William Kanengiser has recorded Chobanian’s own version for that instrument, along with works by Bartok, Kabalevsky and others, on a CD titled Echoes of the Old World, which can be sampled on line. In March 2007, Chobanian’s Armenian Rhapsody for Guitar and Symphonic Wind Ensemble was given its premiere in St. Paul, Minnesota, by the University of St. Thomas Symphonic Wind Ensemble and conductor Matthew George, with Christopher Kachian as soloist, before being taken on tour to China.

—Dennis Dooley

For more on the composer, visit my.en.com/~jaquick/locworks.html

   

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