The 50th anniversary of any institution is noteworthy. But when the institution envelops a whole community, then the milestone is monumental.
The 50th anniversary of New York’s St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral is just such a happening. And it will be marked in grand style on the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, May 5 and May 6, 2018.
His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, will travel from Holy Etchmiadzin to New York to preside over the occasion. He will be present throughout the weekend, and celebrate the Pontifical Divine Liturgy on Sunday, May 6.
But the artistic centerpiece of the celebration will be a spectacular concert on the evening of Saturday, May 5, in the sanctuary of St. Vartan Cathedral, where His Holiness will preside.
Master pianist Şahan Arzruni is organizing the concert, at the request of Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian. It will feature such luminaries as Isabel Bayrakdarian, Haig Mardirosian, Sato Moughalian, Hovhannes Mirzoyan, the Nikolai Kachanov Singers, and Arzruni himself.
Musical Memories of the Cathedral
Being a part of the 50th anniversary celebration is very special to Mr. Arzruni, whose connection to St. Vartan Cathedral dates back to its early days.
“I remember marveling at the intersecting arches during its construction, and seeing its distinctive pyramidal dome placed on top. Those are two very unique features of Armenian church architecture,” he said, “and my spirit soared to see them realized, on such a gigantic scale, in the middle of New York City.”
Even while it was under construction, he could see that St. Vartan Cathedral was modeled “along the lines of the 7th-century St. Hripsime Church in Armenia, named after one of the first martyrs of the Armenian Church. Hripsime is one of the most harmonious church designs ever conceived,” he said. “And St. Vartan Cathedral is its true heir.”
Arzruni also reminisced about Catholicos Vasken I, the late Catholicos of All Armenians, coming to New York for the cathedral consecration in April of 1968. It was on the same occasion that the venerable Catholicos elevated the Primate of the Eastern Diocese, Bishop Torkom Manoogian, to the rank of archbishop. “Torkom Srpazan shepherded the cathedral to completion, making it the first Armenian cathedral in North America—the first in the Western Hemisphere. And he was the human face of the cathedral for its first quarter century,” he said.
For the consecration service on April 28, 1968, New York’s Gomidas Choir sang the Divine Liturgy—marking the first of many important musical events at the cathedral. Isahak Aprahamyan, Onnig Hepsen, and Dr. Ara Bohcali formed the Gomidas Choir in 1958, as a “New York offshoot” of the choir originally formed by Gomidas Vartabed himself in Bolis in 1910. (Dr. Arthur Misyan would conduct the New York Gomidas Choir for many years.) Here again, Arzruni feels a special connection, for he had been the regular organist of the Istanbul choir from 1961 to 1964, before coming to New York.
A Glorious Event
The concert on Saturday evening, May 5, will be a program of Armenian sacred music.
Acclaimed soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian will sing a number of sharagans a capella, Arzruni enthusiastically noted. “Among her many accomplishments in music, Isabel is noted for her authentic interpretation of the Armenian canonical hymn, or sharagan. I think listeners will find her part of the program a revelation,” he said.
The audience will also hear the instrumental work “Prayer of St. Gregory,” by Alan Hovhaness, part of his opera titled, Etchmiadzin. The special arrangement will be performed by Haig Mardirosian, organist and Dean Emeritus of Tampa University, along with young clarinetist Narek Arutyunian. Mr. Mardirosian will also perform a suite by Alan Hovhannes titled “Sanahin,” inspired by the 10th-century monastery of that name.
Sato Moughalian on the alto flute will play “Hayren,” by composer Tigran Mansourian, with Şahan Arzruni at the piano. In its form, the piece is evocative of a medieval bardic form perfected by Nahapet Kouchak, one of the first Armenian ashoughs.
The concert will conclude with excerpts from the Divine Liturgy of Gomidas Vartabed, conducted by Hovhannes Mirzoyan, who is traveling from Armenia to conduct a 16-member professional male choir. “Mirzoyan is a master of this repertoire, and the chorus rendering this music in the setting of the cathedral will be very powerful,” Arzruni noted.
To start this special concert, an ensemble of 120 children will sing Yekmalian’s “Hayr Mer,” and the “Hayrabedagan Maghtank” in honor of the Catholicos of All Armenians. The children will come from three local Armenian schools: Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School of Bayside, NY; the St. Vartan School of Brooklyn; and the Hovnanian School of Milford, NJ.
Following the concert in St. Vartan Cathedral, a reception will take place in Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium, to which all are invited. Simultaneously on display in the complex will be an exhibit of photos and artifacts from cathedral history, which promises to be equally inspiring.