Rekindling the flame of Khachaturian

The centenary of the great composer is celebrated by fellow-Armenian musicians
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The Independent Culture

Tonight, at the Royal Festival Hall, the centenary of the birth of Aram Khachaturian, the Armenian composer we all know thanks to the "Sabre Dance", and the "Onedin Line" theme from his ballet Spartacus, will be celebrated. He was a true pioneer: the first Armenian to compose a concerto, a symphony, and a ballet; like Edvard Grieg, he single-handedly created his own national style within a Western European framework. The guest soloist for the concert, the violinist Levon Chilingirian, insists that Khachaturian was "the right man at the right time, for both the Soviet Union and Armenia. He imposed Western harmony on Armenian melodies, but didn't tame their spirit. His music is quintessentially Armenian."

Khachaturian may have been born in Georgia, and spent much of his life in Moscow, but his spirit fills the pretty house where he composed in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and which is now his museum. Early photos show a determined little boy, with his bookbinder father and his first musical mentors; there are his scores written out in a notably clear, assured hand, and there is his piano, a big, black Blüthner with a warm, singing tone.

In Soviet days, Yerevan was a music centre on a par with Moscow and Leningrad: its orchestras were top-notch, and its conservatories pumped out world-class soloists. It still has one good orchestra, and its music schools still produce stars, but against huge economic odds. Chilingirian's day-job is professor at the Royal College of Music, but he's doing all he can to help his musical compatriots. He recently arranged for a benefit concert in London, on behalf of the Sayat Nova music school in Yerevan, only to discover that the inspirational violinist who led that school had mysteriously been removed from his post. He had wanted to hold Khachaturian concerts in Yerevan in this centenary year, but was stymied by the fact that every hall in town was closed "for refurbishment".

So Chilingirian has been forced to box clever: "The only way to help Armenian music now is to identify the people you admire, and send them money directly - not through institutions." He stages chamber-music competitions in Yerevan. "We try to encourage young musicians to stay in Armenia. My dream is that, in time, Yerevan will be no different from Budapest or Prague, with a comparable musical scene."

When I sound out the young string virtuosi with whom Chilingirian will share the stage tonight, I get a more sobering response. Chilingirian's dream sounds good, says the London-based cellist Alexander Chaushian, "but to survive in Yerevan now, you need to be a crook. Things will get better eventually - I just hope they do so in my lifetime." The violinist Sergey Khachatryan puts it in a nutshell: "I couldn't go back to work in Yerevan. Many people haven't got enough to eat, and in that state nobody wants to listen to classical music. But though I live in Germany now, Armenia is in my blood, and it always will be."

Khachaturian centenary concert, tonight at 7.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020-7921 0600)