The Naghash Ensemble debuts in Montreal Bourgie hall at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

By Noushig Ghazarian Nalpatian

Armenian medieval music inspired by poems written by medieval priest Mkritich Naghash has been brought to life at Bourgie Hall of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. American Armenian composer John Hodian, the creator and composer of the Naghash Ensemble, together with his classical musicians have made their first Canadian debut in Montreal on March the 13th, 2023.  After having successfully toured Europe and most recently in California, Colorado, Michigan and just before their performance in Montreal they performed at Carnegie Hall, in New York City.

The performance, entitled “Songs of Exile” is as relevant today as it was 500 years ago when the poems of Mkritich Naghash was first written. The ensemble combines spiritual Armenian folk songs, with a more contemporary, modern and jazz sound. As your ears are competing for attention to get the sound of the three female vocalists Hasmik Baghdasaryan (soprano), Tatevik Movsesyan (soprano) and Arpie Ter-Petrosyan (alto) your eyes are also competing to see the Armenian instruments played by Emmanuel Hovhannisyan on duduk, Aramayis Nikoghosyan on oud, Tigran Hovannisyan on dhol and John Hodian himself on the piano and the compositions.

Hodian brought together his ensemble after having moved to Armenia in 2008. He first came across Hasmik Baghdasaryan as he was wandering outside of Garni temple (just outside of Yerevan) early in the morning as he describes “I suddenly heard the most haunting and beautiful sound ever.” “She was singing medieval Armenian spiritual music, and I was completely mesmerized.”

As he explains to the audience how it came to be the rest of course played itself out and the start of a new sound with old Armenian poems that was originally meant to be sung was brought to life.

The impressive sounds of the vocalists and instruments combined fills the room with its stained glass windows and brings the energy of contemporary music and medieval spiritual lyrics to life. The instruments as traditional as they are to Armenian and Eastern culture have been taken out of their comfort zone of folk instruments and have been given a new sound of rock and jazz. The combination of old and new put together is what makes this ensemble different from other Armenian ensembles. Hodian has brought something different to the forefront of Armenian church music and made it more appealing to a vast audience around the world. The lyrics may be hard to understand if you’re not Armenian but the uniqueness of his music is that it not only lies on the lyrics but the music and instruments as a whole. You’re captured by the combination of the modern sounds of the instruments and the range of vocals out the vocalists that at times are just mesmerizing and hypnotic. It captivates you and keeps you engrossed and intrigued till the end. The range of the vocalists is haunting at times and pleasant at the same time. It keeps the listener engaged at all times as one experiences both the high and lows of the music and the lyrics behind the music. John Hodian’s background in European classical music and having a masters degree in composition and conducting along with his Armenian roots and the American music he grew up listening too is all evident in the performance. The composers range and diversity has greatly attributed to the music The Naghash Ensemble puts out and Hodian has been influenced by.

Hodian during his performance explains to the audience the backstory of his music and the story of Mkrtich Naghash. “A medieval Armenian poet and priest, Naghash lived in the 1500’s  and had a huge following in Diyarbakir where he built a church with a steeple that was higher than any of the local mosques” “This of course did not sit well with the ruling Ottoman empire and its inhabitants at the time.” “He was told repeatedly to take it down, but he of course refused and was eventually exiled.” “Unable to see his family and friends ever again.” “During this time of exile he wrote 15 poems which were meant to be sung but did not have any music attached to them.” This is where Hodian has made it his own.

The life of Naghash is as relevant today as it was in the 1500’s. Armenians till this day live with injustice, despair,  religious intolerance and prejudice. Armenians are always fighting for their faith, their land and the ongoing struggle to keep what we have for hundreds of centuries. The struggle is real for all Armenians whether your we’re living during the ottoman empire or at the present time.

Hodian wanted to close his performance on a lighter note and wanted the audience to leave feeling lighter with a lullaby. About a child who would just not sleep and a mother struggling to put the child to sleep by singing the lullaby for the tired and restless child. The irony of this song at the closing has many overlapping truths. Looking at the bigger picture, as Armenians, we struggle – but we always somehow find a way to keep going and no matter what, we don’t give up as the mother does not give up to put the child to sleep.


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