Friday, June 05, 2009
Argentina meets Armenia at Pierre Abou Khater Amphitheater
Michael Ashjian 'Miniatures' is a lyrical bit of Lebanese tango

By Matthew Mosley
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: "I've been in hiding for 10 years." The voice of pianist and composer Michael Ashjian rises
from the phone after "Miniatures," his Tuesday-evening concert at the Pierre Abou Khater
Amphitheater. "I was looking deep inside myself, asking 'What can make me happy?' With this
music, I've finally discovered the answer."
The concert saw a series of Ashjian's 12 short compositions performed by a fluctuating group of
musicians, including a guitarist, flautist, bassist and accordionist. Ashjian played the piano for his
tango-inspired tracks.
Last seen in performance in 1999 at the Byblos Festival, a series of personal crises led Ashjian to
beat a decade-long retreat from performance. While teaching piano at the Lebanese Conservatoire,
Ashjian tried all manner of diversions in his quest for happiness.
"I even took dance classes," he says.
But composing remained at the forefront of his mind. "Composing haunted me," he says. "I was
always trying to write, but it didn't feel authentic."
Three years ago, Ashjian began work on a series of compositions inspired by Astor Piazzolla, the
Argentine tango maestro. "I feel a deep connection to Latin American culture," explains Ashjian.
"Their kind of music allows freedom of expression. It allows you to live in the moment. They have
created such a beautiful culture. It expresses a real love of life."
Piazzolla became Ashjian's musical inspiration as he grappled to find an authentic mode of
self-expression. "Piazzolla has influenced generations of musicians," says Ashjian. "I still have so
much more to learn from him."
For audience members unfamiliar with Piazzolla's revolutionary style, Ashjian's tunes may have come
as something as a surprise. The strident, dramatic tone of traditional Argentine tango was rarely to
be heard. Instead, tango rhythms were fleshed out with romantic, elegiac instrumentation.
"Friendship," Ashjian's second piece, paired rippling guitars with swooning violins, the tone more
expressive of yearning than tempestuous passion. An emotional, atmospheric guitar solo brought the
piece to a close.
Several of the most moving works were dominated by the cello. On "Cello Fall," the concert's
penultimate piece, the soaring, mournful character of Ashjian's melodies was heightened by Angela
Hounanian's animated playing.
There were electrifying moments for the violin. The vertiginous, high-pitched sawing on several
pieces was the closest Ashjian's music came to traditional tango. Michel Kheirallah, first violinist with
the National Symphony Orchestra, provided the masterful bowing.
"I called Michel in fear," recounts Ashjian. "He's always so busy. He told me he'd listen to my music,
but wouldn't be involved if he didn't like it. Thankfully, all my colleagues at the Conservatoire
seemed excited by the music."
The composer now wants to form a group of musicians to give tango compositions a higher profile in
Lebanon. "There are so many exciting new Argentinean composers," he says. "I'm hoping to fix a
more stable ensemble."
The Daily Star - - Argentina meets Armenia at Pierre Abou Khater...
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Ashjian's final piece, "Tango in Armenian Flame," saw the composer uniting his own heritage with the
Latin culture that inspires him. "For most of this project, I was feeling very international," he says. "I
didn't want to force anything, the melodies came very naturally. They don't come from any particular
"When I came to write this final piece, I'd met with a friend who'd just returned from Armenia. My
nostalgia was refreshed. I was also very angry at the time about a personal experience of injustice.
From this I generalized - the piece is an opus against injustice, personal, social and political."
Though a native of Lebanon, Ashjian spent eight years in Armenia for his musical training, so his ties
to that country are strong. "Tango in Armenian Flame" pitches an Armenian melody against a fiery
tango backdrop. The extreme ends of the piano's scale are used, the contrast creating drama in a
manner reminiscent of Bernstein.
These pieces seem to have proven cathartic for Ashjian. "I felt I was losing the line between reality
and dreams," he says. "I got to the point where I really had to have something to show. Now,
nothing can stop me."