Loris Tjeknavorian

  November 16, 2021   Read time 13 min
Loris Tjeknavorian
Loris Haykasi Tjeknavorian (Armenian: Լորիս Ճգնավորյան; born 13 October 1937) is an Iranian Armenian composer and conductor. He has appeared internationally as a conductor, serving as the principal conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra from 1989 to 1998 and later from 1999 to 2000.

Born in Borujerd, Iran in 1937 to immigrant Armenian parents, Tjeknavorian's early life was succinctly chronicled in the London magazine Gramophone in 1976:

"His father came from Eastern Armenia and his mother had fled from Western Armenia during the 1915 Armenian genocide… Influenced by three cultures, Armenian, Iranian and Western, he benefited from a cosmopolitan upbringing. His grandfather, a doctor, liked to play the violin and as a boy Loris enjoyed listening to professional string-players (Russian, Armenian or Polish immigrants) in local cafés. Although not themselves musical, his parents wanted all three children (one boy, two girls) to play musical instruments. Eight-year-old Loris was given a violin. Despite the lack of a teacher, the boy began to study in earnest; before long he had composed a number of piano pieces, with no formal instruction whatsoever. At 16 he formed a four-part choir and organized and conducted his own orchestra in Teheran. A year later he was ready to leave for the Vienna Academy of Music as a violin and composition student. While there, he wrote a violin concerto, which received the ultimate endorsement from his teacher, Hans-Joachim Drevo, who was the soloist in the work's première. Tjeknavorian graduated with honours." (Gramophone, November 1976)

Shortly after his graduation, the Austrian music publisher Doblinger published four of his piano compositions as well as his Ballet Fantastique for three pianos, celeste and percussion in Vienna.

Following this fruitful period of education, Tjeknavorian went back to Iran in 1961, where he taught music theory at the Tehran Conservatory of Music. At the same time, he was appointed director of Tehran's Music Archives and put in charge of collecting and researching traditional and modern Iranian folk music and instruments. He mounted the first Archives exhibition to great success, and began work on an opera based on the epic poem of Rostam and Sohrab.

Tjeknavorian returned to Austria in 1963 to further his studies in Salzburg at the Mozarteum. There, he met the renowned composer Carl Orff, who was to become the young musician's mentor and enthusiastic supporter. On hearing Tjeknavorian play sections of his opera Rostam and Sohrab, Orff offered him a full one-year scholarship to stay in Salzburg to complete the first draft of the opera. In addition, Orff commissioned Tjeknavorian to compose piano music based on Armenian music for the Schulwerk, Orff's system for teaching music. Tjeknavorian composed over 130 short pieces for beginning to advanced students. These are collected in two volumes called Kaleidoscope for Piano, portions of which were also published by Schott as Bilder Aus Armenia (Pictures from Armenia).

Tjeknavorian moved to the United States in 1965, where he began to study conducting at the University of Michigan. From 1966 to 1967 he was appointed composer-in-residence at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and from 1966 to 1970 head of the instrumental and opera departments at Moorhead University in Minnesota.

In 1970, the Cultural Ministry of Iran offered Tjeknavorian the positions of composer-in-residence and principal conductor at the Rudaki Opera House in Tehran. While there he conducted a number of major operas, including his own Pardis and Parisa.

Tjeknavorian's extensive study of the technical aspects of traditional Iranian instruments culminated with the composition of the dance-drama Simorgh, the first polyphonic composition scored entirely for Iranian instruments and based on themes from Zoroastrian myth and Persian mystical poetry. Following sold-out performances of the ballet in Tehran, the suite from Simorgh was recorded and released as an LP in London by Unicorn in 1975 to great critical acclaim. Writing about his unique compositional style, Gramophone praised the piece as "strangely beautiful".

In Tehran Tjeknavorian's talents found huge demand, and he soon became the leading composer of film music in Iran, scoring some 30 scores for documentaries and short and popular feature films, many of them classics of pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema. Among them was the award-winning film Bita, starring Iranian singing and acting legend Googoosh, released in 1972. That same year Tjeknavorian received the Homayoun Order and Medal for Persepolis, his score for the spectacular Son et Lumiere show at the ancient Persian capital. The audience consisted of dignitaries and heads of state from around the world that had gathered in Iran for the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. The show was a highlight of the unprecedented event, and was followed by the release of the score by Philipps.

In 1975 Tjeknavorian relocated to London where he signed an exclusive conducting contract with the RCA recording company. His first release was the hugely acclaimed recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique") with the LSO, hailed in Gramophone as "bold and exciting" and by RCA as "an astounding performance of electrifying passion and nobility".

Tjeknavorian's sudden impact on the international music scene in London created a furor, with RCA running two-page advertisement in Gramophone proclaiming him "the greatest conductor of his generation". Attended by talk-of-the-town performances at venues such as the Royal Festival Hall, Tjeknavorian followed this early success with a series of similarly acclaimed recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, including ground-breaking interpretations of Sibelius, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Dvorak, and Borodin. Tjeknavorian's also quickly established himself as the world's foremost interpreter of the symphonic music of Aram Khachaturian. His recording of the complete score of the ballet Gayaneh, the first and only of its kind, was hailed by the London critics as "first class" and "the most distinguished of the RCA recordings made by Loris Tjeknavorian" (Gramophone, April 1977 and June 1983).

In 1978 Tjeknavorian organized Music Armenia, described in Gramophone as "the first Armenian Festival on foreign soil. During the day there were symposiums, conferences and comparative studies of Armenian music, and in the evening, concerts presenting Armenian artists and composers." Speaking to the London magazine, Tjeknavorian explained: "Being Christian, the first thing the Armenians did…was to translate the Bible as early as the fourth century AD. Then they started writing music in the fifth century. As soon as the alphabet was created, the chants started to be written down in old neumes. By the eighteenth century they could no longer decipher these neumes, so the musicians got together and renotated all the different chants. When I was studying in Vienna I discovered the Armenian Monastery there, and found a wealth of these chants. I became so involved in searching through all the manuscripts, it took me 15 years, and I found seven different traditions amounting to something like 30,000 melodies…It was far removed from my original idea of having the melodies just for my own compositional use, and I realized that it was of immense interest to musicologists" (Gramophone, May 1979). For his long and dedicated work Tjeknavorian was awarded the Order of "Gregory the Illuminator" by the late Catholicos Vazgen I.

Taking some of the medieval chants he had rediscovered, Tjeknavorian composed the vocal work Life of Christ, first performed during the Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by the Ambrosian Singers. Many of Tjeknavorian's most important compositions were written in this fruitful and personally difficult ten-year period culminating with, and immediately following, the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Foremost among his works during this time are his Second Symphony (Credo) and the oratorio The Book of Revelations, the second and third parts respectively of his trilogy on the Armenian genocide begun with his groundbreaking First Symphony (Requiem for the Massacred) scored for trumpet and percussion and released in London by Unicorn in 1976. Another key work towards the end of this period was his ballet Othello, commissioned by the Northern Ballet Company and premiered in London in 1985 with Princess Ann in attendance. The recording of the piece released that year on EMI with the London Symphony Orchestra was praised by Gramophone as "enormously effective" (Gramophone, November 1985).

Soon after settling in New York City in 1986, Tjeknavorian's destiny was diverted by the devastating Armenian earthquake of December 1988. In response, Tjeknavorian organized a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall to raise relief funds for the victims. The concert featured Plácido Domingo, Mstislav Rostropovich, Alexander Toradze and stars of the New York Metropolitan Opera, including Mirella Freni, Frederica von Stade, Samuel Ramey and Elena Obraztsova. Ticket sales for the event raised $500,000 that was sent to Armenia, where Tjeknavorian relocated a few months later, having been appointed Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra (APO) in Yerevan.

For Tjeknavorian, the most important task was rebuilding the cultural life of Gyumri (then Leninakan), Armenia's second largest city, which had been devastated by the earthquake. In 1991 Tjeknavorian announced his intention to go on a pilgrimage walk from Yerevan to Gyumri in order to raise funds for rebuilding efforts. Thousands of people joined him along the way and a huge percentage of the Armenian population donated money for the cause. Fifteen million rubles, worth around 20 million dollars at the time, were collected nationwide. Unfortunately, several months later the Soviet ruble was devalued and Tjeknavorian was compelled to seek additional money from private sources. Tjeknavorian took over the huge communist party headquarters, which had been destroyed, and in seven years transformed it into the first Academy of Music and Arts in Gyumri. During this time, his fundraising led to the founding of a symphony orchestra, wind ensemble, choir and dance ensemble, the renovation of the theater and restarting of the Gyumri TV station, and purchasing musical instruments for the orchestra and band, whose instruments had all been destroyed in the earthquake, as well as ten grand pianos for the Arts and Music Academy.

Tjeknavorian was also instrumental in the 1991 campaign for Armenian independence. Through his tours in various Armenian cities and an all-night televised performance on national television two days before the measure passed on September 21, 1991, Tjeknavorian managed to increase the "Yes" vote for independence from 30 to 96 per cent.[citation needed] Given the heated controversy and popular passions surrounding the question of independence, the peaceful nature of the victory was unique, reached by Tjeknavorian[citation needed] through the power of music and a positive cultural message.

Following independence, Tjeknavorian served on the committee to reinstate the pre-communist Armenian flag and the national coat-of-arms. He was especially influential in the adoption of the national anthem, "Mer Hayrenik" (Our Fatherland), for which he rewrote the words for the first stanza. Tjeknavorian also renamed[citation needed] the two major avenues of Yerevan during last year of the Soviet period, from Lenin and Red Army to Mesrop Mashtots (creator of the Armenian alphabet in 451) and Gregory the Illuminator (founder of the Armenian church in 301 AD) respectively. The renaming reflected his philosophy of "Faith and Culture" as the twin foundations upon which the Armenian nation must be re-built. During the crippling energy blockade between 1992 and 1995 - a result of the Karabakh war - the capital was gripped by shortages of food, water, heat and electricity. Faithful to his vow that "the doors of culture must never be closed", Tjeknavorian maintained weekly concerts at this time, including a regular series of spiritual music concerts every Saturday in anticipation of the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. Organizing transportation for the musicians and securing their daily needs, installing power generators and electric heaters and ensuring constant power supply in the building, Tjeknavorian turned the Aram Khachaturian Hall into a sanctuary of culture and faith, and was instrumental[citation needed] in lifting the spirits of the thousands who packed the hall each week. This phenomenon was memorialized by numerous eyewitnesses of the time, including former Russian Ambassador Vladimir Stupishin, who wrote at length about Tjeknavorian's activities in his memoirs.

During his eleven-year collaboration with the APO, his recordings with the orchestra for ORF (the Austrian radio and television station) and ASV (an English recording company) achieved worldwide recognition; they frequently toured Europe, the United States, Canada, Iran and Lebanon. For three successive years, from 1991 to 1993, the APO was the resident orchestra in the ORF benefit program Licht Ins Dunkel in Vienna.

In 2000, Tjeknavorian resigned from the APO in order to devote more time to composing. During this period he also conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and performed at the San Francisco Opera House, the Contemporary Music Festival and at the Vienna Music Festival in Hong Kong and Bangkok. He conducted the Austrian premiere of his opera Rostam and Sohrab at the Festspielhaus in St. Pölten.

From 2009 to the present, Tjeknavorian has continued to devote his time to composing, as well as painting and writing short stories. Among his most recent works are the operas Zahak (libretto based on Ferdowsi's Shahnameh) and Mowlana and Shams-e Tabriz (libretto based on the poetry of Rumi), as well as the chamber opera "The Final Hour of Sadegh Hedayat" (libretto based on "The Blind Owl" and other works by the Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat). Other works include his second concerto for violin and chamber orchestra, a work for solo piano titled "1915", and two major symphonic suites: King Cyrus, about the ancient Persian king, and Takhti, dedicated to the celebrated Iranian wrestler. Tjeknavorian's paintings were exhibited at the Gallery Shirin in Tehran, Gallery Maryam Seyhoun in Los Angeles, and twice at the House of the Artists in Tehran. His series of short stories, written in English, will be published in the near future.

On December 20, 2008, Tjeknavorian recorded Hafez Nazeri's The night of Angel (yet to be released) with the London Symphony orchestra.

Tjeknavorian's recent performances include benefit concerts in Tehran and Los Angeles for the organization MAHAK on behalf of children with cancer, a series of concerts with the Armenian Chamber Orchestra at the Talar Vahdat Hall in Tehran, a performance of his Ararat Suite with the Sacramento Symphony, and the world premiere of his King Cyrus symphonic suite with the San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra in August 2013. In 2011 the Iranian BARBAD recording company issued a 20-CD box set of Tjerknavorian's major works (symphonies, choral works, ballet, chamber music, operas, etc.) plus 2 DVDs of his opera Rostam & Sohrab.

During an interview on the occasion of his 81st birthday, Tjeknavorian said to the journalist of IRNA: "Iran is my homeland. My ancestors have lived in this land. I’ve been born in Iran and will be buried here. I’m emotionally and culturally attached to every inch of this country and feel at home in nowhere except for Iran."