By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
HALLE, Germany, JULY 22, 2021 — The cathedral in Halle is huge, but once the doors closed and visitors had taken their seats, it was almost full — at least as full as it could be under pandemic conditions of social distancing.
In mid-afternoon on Sunday, July 18, the church in this Thuringian city hosted the opening concert in a series that will continue during August in several Armenian cities, including Halle’s sister city, Gyumri.
The fact that Gyumri and Halle are finalizing the process is itself historic, as this is the first such partnership between cities in the two nations. In Germany, virtually every city has a partner in another country, but until now, none has had a twin city status in Armenia.
Presenting an ambitious and highly differentiated program was Ars Musica, a male chorus that has been engaged in projects for Armenia over many years. (https://mirrorspectator.com/2021/06/17/ars-musica-to-perform-in-armenia/) Most of the chorus members started out in a boys choir in the city of Suhl, a choir that presented a benefit concert in 1988 following the earthquake. In 2018, the adult chorus raised funds at a concert which financed the renovation of the auditorium at the H. Tumanyan middle school in Lichk.
Now Ars Musica has launched a new Armenian initiative. Postponed from 2020 due to the Covid crisis, the project involves a series of benefit concerts in historic locations: the monasteries in Tatev, Geghard and Sevanavank, the House of Hope and Komitas Museum in Yerevan, Echmiadzin and Gavar. In Lichk they will perform in the new auditorium and in Gyumri at the Black Fortress.
Armenian Ambassador to Germany Ashot Smbatyan said, in greetings published in the concert tour program, that he was especially glad that the Halle concert would be replicated in Gyumri, as it will be “an important cornerstone for the expansion of the recently established city partnership between Halle and Gyumri.” And the proceeds from the concert will contribute to musical education in the city, known as the cultural capital of Armenia. The conservatory in Gyumri, a branch of the Komitas Conservatory of Yerevan State University, would like to offer classical harp instruction, but lacks the instrument. Together with Ars Musica, the Mirak-Weissbach Foundation and the Halle Rotary Club have donated funds to purchase a Venera Grand Concert Harp. It should be officially presented at the concert on August 22.
In Halle, the chorus performed a generous program with Armenian pieces (sung in the original), as well as works from the classical European repertoire, including by modern and contemporary composers. They began with Metzatsustse andzn im ezTer by Komitas Vardapet, which they sang from the back of the church. Following greetings delivered by Smbatyan, an official from the state government and Dr. Judith Marquardt, the person dealing with the partnership procedures, the chorus reassembled in front of the main altar and performed a series of very different compositions, displaying extraordinary virtuosity among a broad spectrum of genres. First came a Russian liturgical piece by Piotr Janczak Kriestu Tvoyemu (1972), containing various musical styles, from a chant-like recitative (Sprechgesang) to the highly dramatic and harmonious/lyrical. Leonard Cohen’s (1934-2016) Hallelujah followed in English, conveying an aura of chiming bells from the bass voices. Libertatum by Jim Papoulis added a mixture of jazz-like rhythms and clapping.
In Halle, Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), one of its most famous sons, could not be absent. The cathedral cantor Gerhard Nötzel played his Suite No. 7 in G minor on the organ, introducing yet another musical voice and mood into the gathering.
The second part of the program included works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy and Franz Schubert, as well as famous German favorites, like Heidenröslein by Heinrich Werner (1800-1833) and Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum. It concluded with the famous Sanctus (Heilig, Heilig, Heilig) also by Schubert, which is particularly effective when sung by such an excellent men’s choir as Ars Musica.
Halle is a most appropriate setting for this chorus and its solidarity project. Here, in the late 17th century, August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), a Lutheran theologian and clergyman, educator and philanthropist, launched a ground-breaking project to care for homeless children. He established an orphanage which began with 100 children, then developed over the years to offer protection and the best available education to more than 2,000 at the time of his death. Francke focused on religious instruction but included sciences and vocational training. His institution expanded to include higher education and teacher training seminars, gardens and a workshop, as well as a pharmacy, and later hospital. It remains active today as the Franckesche Stiftungen.
The spirit of Halle lives on in the initiative of Ars Musica and its partners. Smbatyan said he was “thoroughly convinced that compassion, neighborly love, knows no borders. I want to stress, with deep satisfaction, that these charitable projects are being carried out through cultural cooperation. Culture knows no borders either, but rather opens new doors, builds new bridges. Such a bridge is this initiative by Ars Musica.”