“The future depends on what we do in the present.”
Those powerful words—spoken by Mahatma Gandhi—were emblazoned as a marquis over an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City.
But they could have stood as the motto for the entire weekend of celebratory activities at the cathedral on Saturday and Sunday, May 5 and 6, 2018—which included the photo exhibit, a grand concert of sacred music, and a magnificent Divine Liturgy and requiem service.
The generous Grand Benefactors for the 50th anniversary festivities were lifelong philanthropists Nazar and Artemis Nazarian.
Image of a Living Church
The memorable celebration began on the evening of May 5 with a photo exhibit portraying momentous events in St. Vartan Cathedral’s half-century of existence, titled “Image of a Living Church: 50 Years of Faith.”
Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, who prior to stepping down from his role as Primate had been the Diocesan leader for 28 years, warmly welcoming the large crowd at the exhibit opening, calling it “a great opportunity to remember the past and everyone who took part in the foundation of this cathedral.”
Referring to the new era of leadership the Diocese entered in the previous day with the election of a new Primate, he added: “With these great achievements of the past as our foundation, we look forward with great hope and see a wonderful future under the newly-elected Primate of the Eastern Diocese, Fr. Daniel Findikyan.”
Sandra Shahinian Leitner, who chaired the 50th anniversary Art Committee and was one of the curators of the exhibit along with Melanie Dadourian and Shoghag Hovanessian, thanked the Primate for his great service and dedication, and recalled that in the turbulence of world events in 1968, the Cathedral was consecrated by the Catholicos of All Armenians Vasken I.
“In the middle of the year’s turmoil, Armenian-Americans brought a dream of many decades to fruition,” Sandra said. “From their early days in this country, the Genocide survivors knew that an Armenian house of worship would be their home, their place of peace, and the emblem of centuries of faith that held them together.”
The exhibit had extra special meaning for co-curator Melanie Dadourian, because her grandfather Dadour Dadourian was one of the visionaries behind the building of the cathedral and Diocesan complex.
“We were struck by how massive the effort was to raise money for the cathedral’s construction—the sheer will it required from that generation,” Melanie said. “When we discovered the amazing documents and posters from the Brick Campaign in the archives, it motivated us to reflect on Catholicos Vasken’s inspiring words, ‘Image of a Living Church,’ and use them as the theme of the exhibit.”
Video footage of the cathedral’s 1968 consecration by the hand of Catholicos Vasken was on continuous display as part of the exhibit.
Co-curator Vicki Hovanessian commented during the exhibition that as she researched the original newspaper accounts and committee documents, she understood what a “great magnet the Cathedral has been for commemorations and community gatherings.”
Those iconic occasions were recalled in the exhibit via beautifully mounted historical photographs. The exhibit also included paintings of the Diocesan Primates who envisioned and advanced the cathedral, including Archbishops Karekin Hovsepian, Tiran Nersoyan, Sion Manoogian, Torkom Manoogian, and Khajag Barsamian.
Also prominently featured were the occasions with dignitaries such as internationally acclaimed composers Aram Khatchadourian and Alan Hovhaness, New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, New York City Mayors Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani, and Ed Koch, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, and artist Michael Aram, among many others.
John Aslanian, one of the original godfathers of the cathedral in 1968, said that he was present to represent the past generation, “to honor his parents: the grandparents of his daughter.”
“I remember what it meant for other generations and survivors,” he said.
On Saturday evening, an impressive concert featuring internationally known musical luminaries took center stage in the sanctuary of St. Vartan Cathedral, with some 700 spectators in attendance.
(The entire concert was broadcast live on the Diocese’s Livestream channel; a recording can be viewed here.)
Introducing the performers was master pianist, ethnomusicologist, and radio and television personality Şahan Arzruni.
With the profound significance of the cathedral’s golden anniversary dominating the spirit of the evening, the concert began with a joint youth choir of 50 youngsters enthusiastically singing The Lord’s Prayer (Hayr Mer) by Magar Yekmalian, and the Pontifical Ode (Hayrabedagan Maghtank) by Komitas Vardapet. The school-age youngsters, conducted by St. Vartan Choir director Maestro Khoren Mekanejian, with Louise Yardumian accompanying on the organ, were from the Hovnanian School, the Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School, and the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian School.
Their performance struck an appropriate tone for the evening, of looking back at great achievements, and looking forward with hope for the future.
The celebrated soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, international operatic performer and recipient of the “Movses Khorenatsi” medal, offered four meditative, spiritually compelling a cappella hymns (sharagans). Exhibiting poise and presence, she sang works by Baghdasar Tbir, Hampartsoum Limondjian, and two selections by Komitas Vardapet, with a full, rounded voice infused with warmth and spirituality.
Clarinetist Narek Arutyunian, already an acclaimed soloist and recitalist with orchestras in the U.S., tackled the majestic Prayer of St. Gregory by legendary composer Alan Hovhaness, with organ accompaniment by noted concert organist Haig Mardirosian. It was sumptuously performed with ravishing effect.
Flutist Sato Moughalian, well-known chamber musician, soloist, and orchestral player, with Mr. Arzruni on piano, shared Four Hayren (based on the poetry of Kuchag) composed by one of Armenia’s best-known musicians, Tigran Mansurian. The plaintive, lyrical melodies were played by both artists with deep, soulful emotion.
Haig Mardirosian, professor emeritus of Music at the University of Tampa and American University in Washington, DC, and a concert organist of international standing, presented four movements of Alan Hovhaness’ celestial and spiritual Sanahin, dedicated to the magnificent church of the same name in Armenia. His performance of the ethereal work with its interesting rhythms and tonalities had St. Vartan Cathedral resounding with the loudest fortes, then simmering down to the softest pianissimos, culminating in the final movement, “Processional of Peace.”
The evening’s nuanced and breathtaking performances concluded with the Nikolai Kachanov Singers, artists-in-residence at the Nicholas Roerich Museum in Manhattan, who sang acappella selections from the Divine Liturgy of Komitas Vardapet.
Prior to their performance, Şahan Arzruni explained to the audience that “the Yekmalian Badarak is the setting sung in most Armenian churches on Sundays; but the Komitas Badarak is deeply rooted in the ancient Armenian tradition. It was written for a four-part male chorus, with no musical instrument to be used.”
The conductor of this impressive group was Hovhannes Mirzoyan, who chairs the conducting department at the Komitas State Conservatory in Armenia. He described Komitas’ music as “not easy to understand, but deeply moving. It is like pure spring water; the most important element of our collective soul.”
The 15-member male choir—only one of whom was Armenian—sang with perfect pronunciation and resonant harmony. Soloists were tenors Sergey Tkachenko and Jason Weisinger, and baritone Vagharshak Ohanyan.
The Sanctus (Sourp, sourp), and Lord, Have Mercy (Der voghormia) chants were so exquisitely rendered that it brought some in the audience to tears.
As the performance ended, the audience rose to its feet, giving all the musicians a long standing ovation.
At the splendid reception following the concert, Honorary Consul General for Armenia in Chicago Oscar Tatosian, who is also a member of the Diocesan Council, called the concert’s range moving and elegant, a sentiment shared by many.
The St. Vartan Cathedral 50th Anniversary Committee went forward under the auspices of Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, and was chaired by Richard Dabagian.
Anniversary Committee members include: Fr. Daniel Findikyan, Fr. Mamigon Kiledjian, Fr. Simeon Odabashian, Fr. Mardiros Chevian, Astrid Dadourian, Melanie Dadourian, Sona Haratunian, Kris Kalfayan, Gregory Manuelian, Vesna Markarian, George Marootian, Lorraine Marootian, Christopher Zakian.
Exhibit Organizing Committee: Sandra Shahinian-Leitner, Shoghag Hovanessian, Melanie Dadourian, Taleen Babayan.
Children’s Performance Committee: Seta Tavitian-Megherian, Shakeh Tashjian, Maestro Khoren Mekanejian, Louise Yardumian, Sonya Bekarian.
Concert Tickets: Tamar Kayserian, Ani Minnetyan, Shakay Chahinian, Margrit Hamparsoumian.
The committee extends special thanks to concert producer Şahan Arzruni. Expenses related to the children’s performance were sponsored by the Dadourian Family Foundation; special thanks to Astrid and Melanie Dadourian. Grateful acknowledgement is extended to Bertha K. Moriarty for the flower arrangements in memory of her parents Aram and Alic Khavlijian and forebears.
By Florence Avakian