Aram Khachaturian Cello Competition: Day 7

No vlog today, other than a video of the moment Competition Chairman Krystof Penderecki announced the recipient of the first prize, bringing to an end a cracking week and a half of cello music in Yerevan.

I was expecting the evening to roll on, but it was in fact a fairly swift affair. Excerpts from Khachaturian ballets opened the evening, then thanks, prizes dished out (Chae-Won Hong and Rustem Khallimdullen tied third place, with Fedor Amosov coming in second), numerous bunches of flowers handed over and, after a little furniture moving, first prize winner Jonathan Swensen took to the stage to play the Concerto Rhapsody one more time.

Swensen plays Concerto Rhapsody one more time

The more times I hear the work the more I engage with its episodic structure. There are moments of exquisite yearning during which a sweet heartfelt melody is front and centre. The opening of the performance wasn’t as strong as I’d heard it in rehearsal or in the final, but it still managed to pack a punch a command attention. 

And whilst the piece’s showiness sometimes casts a shadow on the underlying structure, the build towards its unequivocal ending making for nail-biting drama. The cello does battle with the orchestra and there are moments in that taut coda section when there’s a question mark over who exactly is going to come out on top.

That a fifth live performance in two days could still have that effect on me, even after the tension of the competition has been released, says all you need to know about the performance. My heart was pounding. Swensen remained electrifying throughout.

Presidential celebrations

After the concert, winner, jury and Media Types piled on the bus and made for some post-competition celebrations. This was the first time jury and winner had spoken directly to one another during the ten days. The introductions exchanged seemed surreal given that on paper at least everyone knew each other.

But nowhere near as surreal as the event that followed – a meal attended by the Armenian President and his wife, hosted at Chinar Restaurant by the Armenian Ambassador in Israel, here in Yerevan with his wife for the evening to attend the gala performance. “He’s my son, you know,” said Armen whispering in my eye, pointing at Armenian State Symphony Orchestra conductor Sergey Smbtyan. “You both have the same nose,” I replied.

Customary bread, cheese, salads and pickled vegetables began a meal in which wine and vodka glasses were never allowed to run dry, and toasts overran courses by about two to one. On my side of the long table, composer Krystof Penderecki’s shared stories of her first sighting of Russian cellist Slava Rostropovich, and the perceived decline of his wife Galina Vishnevskya’s career once she married Slava.

There were moments when it all seemed difficult to comprehend. A head of state sat a few seats away from me, opposite him a famous composer I remember studying when I was at school, and next to him his wife regailing stories about a titan of classical music I knew most about via the pages of Humphrey Carpenter’s Britten biography. Print turns dead musicians into archived black and white heroes from the past. When someone brings that person to life using first-hand accounts, it takes a bit of adjustment.

Waiters busied themselves bringing out dessert, but a swift move brought about by the President signalled the evening was at an end. People stood up, many hands shook his, goodbyes were offered, business cards exchanged, and after which everyone left.

Homeward Bound

It’s been a pretty brutal return home. By the time the Media Types made it back to the hotel it was already gone midnight. It seemed counter-productive to try and get any sleep, so I stayed awake, waiting for my 3am taxi to Yerevan Airport.

Unexpectedly, leaving the country was as challenging as entering it, only this time the query wasn’t over why I’d visited Azerbaijan in 2012, but why it was that I looked so different from my passport picture.

“You look very different. You are much fatter,” said the scowly man behind the glass.

“Well, that was taken in 2009 – I was thirty-five then.”

“Give me more photo ID!” I handed over my driving licence. “You are still fat.”

Seemed a little personal.

Watch all of the daily reports from the Aram Khachaturian Cello Competition in this YouTube Playlist.

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

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