Ambassador Tigran Mkrtchyan's interview to the Latvian newspaper


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Ambassador Tigran Mkrtchyan's interview to the Latvian newspaper

Līga Rušeniece: On your initiative the Latvian Radio Choir will soon perform a new program, i. e. Komitas: Liturgy. Armenian Spiritual Music, namely, on Friday, September 20th , in Riga, St. John Church. Thanks to this project Latvia just like many other countries of the world marks the 150th anniversary of Komitas or Soghomon Soghomonyan (1869-1935).

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: Armenians have several pillars or columns that help us represent our culture. One of such pillars is The Book of Lamentations by St. Gregor Narekatsi (951-1003), a 10th century monk, poet and composer, one of the key personalities of our culture. Another outstanding personality is Komitas, priest and composer, the founder of Armenian classical music who lived 10 centuries after Narekatsi and whose heritage is by no means less valuable. Of course, one can’t really compare the heritage of these two people, but still.

Less than 2 years ago the Latvian translation of Narekatsi’s Book of Lamentations was published and, to mark the publication, the Latvian Radio Choir performed a composition of Alfred Schnittke, i.e. the Choir Concerto, based on Narekatsi’s poems. I asked if the choir would be willing to perform also a small fragment of Komitas Liturgy, appr. 3 mins. They did and the performance was perfect. The musicians from Armenia as well as the Armenian diaspora in Latvia said that it had been fantastic to listen to a mixed choir performing a fragment from the Liturgy which was written for male choir.

A year later, the Requiem of the well-known Armenian contemporary composer Tigran Mansurian was for the first time performed in Latvia (the same composition that was nominated for the prestigious Grammy award). This piece is not very long, appr. 45 mins., therefore I asked if the choir would perform 3 fragments of Komitas’ Liturgy. They accepted and their performance was great. An important nuance – the text of Schnittke’s concert is in Russian, Mansurian’s Requiem is in Latin, but Komitas’ Liturgy – in Armenian, which is a big challenge for every non-Armenian choir. I was certain that this is one of those choirs that could perform the unabridged Liturgy.

This year, the 150th anniversary of Komitas is also on the UNESCO list of important events and personalities whose accomplishments and heritage should be remembered, so events dedicated to Komitas are organized all over the world. Thinking how to mark this anniversary we returned to Komitas’ Liturgy which, no doubt, is a very big challenge for every artistic collective. This composition is written for the male choir. Komitas himself rewrote a few fragments for mixed choir but not the whole Liturgy. It is impossible to know now if the composer would have rewritten the whole composition. The Liturgy was completed in 1915, shortly before his deportation to Anatolia, but in 1916 he was admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Turkey, then from 1919 in Paris, where he spent the remaining 20 years of his life. He had ceased to function as a personality and therefore also as a composer.

Without the shadow of doubt, this project is a great challenge. Vache Sharafyan, one of our most prominent contemporary composers has made a new arrangement for mixed choir, also two Armenian singers will take part in the performance – tenor Armen Badalyan and bass Hovhanness Nersesyan. The conductor Sigvards Kļava took the preparatory work very seriously - in February he visited Armenia, the museum of Komitas and stayed in the Etchmiatsin monastery, the place where Komitas himself lived and worked for a few years after he returned from his studies in Germany. By the way, the monastery has one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. This project required a lot of time, thought and energy. It can be called one of our long-term strategic projects.

Līga Rušeniece: It is no secret that we have several excellent choirs, so how did you find the Latvian Radio Choir?

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: I must confess that I love classical music. One of my favorite pieces is Schnittke’s Choir Concert and the Radio Choir is among its best interprets. Also my spouse Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana urged me to look for options of cooperation with this choir. And, last but not least, the biggest recommendation came from the Estonian composer Arvo Part, whom I met during one of my visits to Estonia. I told him about our cooperation with the Radio Choir and he said: this is one of the best if not the best choir in the world. The Radio Choir is no stranger to difficult compositions but the biggest challenge will be the Armenian language.

I will say even more – this performance will be recorded and published by the American company Delos so it could become one of the best achievements not only in the immortalization of Komitas’ music but also one of the most dazzling examples of Armenian culture.

Līga Rušeniece: What would you expect from the audience?

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: It goes without saying that not only the choir’s performance but also the audience that can judge it. Since I became ambassador to Latvia we have organized several concerts and I must say – the Latvian audience always has been exceptionally kind, very receptive to the Armenian classical music. I have no doubt that it will be the case also this time.

Less than 3 years ago you became the Ambassador of Armenia to Latvia. Publicly accessible information gives ample evidence that you have done your best to popularize the Armenian culture in Latvia. Is that a conscious choice?

You are right – it is. Nowadays, it is usually called “soft power.” If a nation and people can boast of certain wealth, and first and foremost it is the wealth of culture, they should show it to people of other countries to conquer their hearts and minds. That is the main goal and motto in the cultural diplomacy – one should use this soft power to reach the hearts and minds of the people. A country should show its riches, its cultural wealth, otherwise they will be unknown. Narekatsi’s Book of Lamentations is evidence of a fantastic insight, questions asked by this monk were unusual in the 10th century, in fact, people started to ask them much later, for example, in Renaissance, i.e. 300-400 years later, such questions were asked by Dante. But in the 10th century these questions had been asked by a monk who lived in a small mountain village in Armenia, who knew only his fellow priests, who never traveled, who never had any contacts with the wider world. His sources of knowledge were books and people around him, his father and uncle. Indeed, it is difficult to grasp that an ordinary human being can have such depth of insight, it must have been given by God. If you have something great in your culture you should present it to the world as much as possible. A very wise man who lives in Vatican once told me: you ambassadors should become messengers of Narekatsi. I replied that we will be that and not only of Narekatsi. I can name many representatives of our culture because our culture is big and rich, we can offer a lot. We are doing everything we can so that the Latvian audience, Latvian society would have access to Armenian culture.

Līga Rušeniece:  The popularization of the cultural heritage is a valuable work but how do you see the cooperation of our countries, e.g. in science, education? Does your vision encompass economics too?

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: Of course, economics as well as politics. We have spoken with the Academy of Science; we have certain ideas how to enhance our cooperation in the future…

According to statistics, the cornerstone of the cooperation is alcohol – Latvia as well as Armenia import alcohol which is a bit strange.

Not so strange. I must say that one of the best brandies in the world is produced in Armenia therefore it is quite logical that Latvia imports it, that people in your country haven’t forgotten the fantastic taste of Ararat cognac.

Līga Rušeniece: Cognac?

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: Probably I should have said brandy but we still call it cognac.

Nowadays, the production of wine of Armenia is developing very fast, it is a new trend in the last decade and today the choice of wines in Armenia is so wide that everyone can find wine according to their taste. Also importers from Baltics have noticed this trend, therefore I am not surprised that also the market has reacted positively.

From Latvia we import the black balsam which is one of most demanded and, accordingly, most highly valued products. Of course, also other sorts of alcohol are imported, e.g. vodka.

Līga Rušeniece: Armenia’s neighbor Georgia is very loud, active and attractive in Latvia’s tourism sector. Isn’t Armenia interested in our tourists?

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: In the nearest future the situation could change because the Air Baltic will probably offer direct flights Riga-Yerevan-Riga. Such flight was opened in 2009, but already 2011 it was closed because of the economic crisis. Right now the Air Baltic is widening its network and the possibility of opening direct flights to Yerevan is being considered very seriously. I have met the managers of Air Baltic and received confirmation that in the next 2-3 years these flights could be reopened.

Direct flights are very important if one wants to attract tourists. Another important provision is the flights offered by low cost airlines, e.g. flights to Yerevan or Gyumri which could open wide range of possibilities. It goes without saying that Armenia is already open to tourists, but perhaps not so easily accessible, because people have to book connecting flights which sometimes are not exactly cheap. Once there are direct flights and low cost airlines the number of tourists will increase significantly.

What definitely must be considered is the option to offer trips to both Georgia and Armenia because it is very easy to plan a trip which includes sightseeing in both countries.

Līga Rušeniece: Is the tourism sector of Armenia ready to cater to such influx of tourists? Of course, there will be hardly masses traveling to Armenia from Latvia but the low cost airlines could still mean an important increase in numbers.

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: The tourism sector and activities available in Armenia expand year by year, what is more, it is a significant increase. Of course, the Armenian diaspora in the world is huge, many thousands every year travel to Armenia, but I believe nevertheless that the increase in number of non-Armenian tourists wouldn’t cause any problems.

Latvians could definitely find points of interest in Armenia – after all they find interesting Georgia. We have many similarities with Georgia although there are of course differences, too. Armenia is more mountainous, the air is drier, and our food too differs from Georgian cuisine. It is a question of taste – some people prefer Georgian, others – Armenian cuisine. Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare such things. Those who have visited Georgia and maybe more than once I would like to invite to come and visit Armenia, i.e. another country in the South Caucasus.

I suspect that there are people from older generation who may have fond memories of their trips to Armenia. The younger generation has to discover and explore our country and we are doing our utmost to help them do so. I know that many people traveled to our country after reading our literature, I know many people who visited Armenia after reading the books written by the contemporary writer Narine Abgaryan. They specifically wanted to visit the country Narine Abgaryan was from.

Līga Rušeniece: How much the relations and cooperation between our countries is influenced by the fact that you are a non-resident ambassador and also our country does not have embassy in Armenia?

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: We are trying to be active and work so that this fact wouldn’t be noticeable. I visit Latvia practically every month, the August, of course, is an exception, and I can say – I am here 8-10 times a year which is a lot for a non-resident ambassador. We organize at least 3 events per year, sometimes even 5, and again – it is a lot for a non-resident ambassador, because sometimes the resident embassies organize one or two events in a year. We try to be noticeable for the society in Latvia, try to be as active as possible. Of course, the resident ambassador has the advantage of staying in the capital of a country which means being closer to what is happening, being more visible. Nevertheless, I do not think that this fact weakens the ties between our countries, I think our relations are good and stable. In an ideal world it would be perfect if a country would have embassies in every single country. That could be said about Armenia as well as Latvia but when we have limited resources they should be used maximally.

Līga Rušeniece: Do you see more similarities or more differences in Latvians and Armenians?

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: I must say that there are more differences. We have some similar features which have arisen because we belong to small nations. A nation that lives next to a big state develops very strong instinct of self-preservation and that is what makes us similar. We, Latvians as well as Armenians, are very sensitive if our identity and its preservation is concerned. Wherever Latvians or Armenians go they try to maintain their identity. At the same time, Latvians as well as Armenians are integrated in societies they live in. I think it is a common feature of all small nations that have had difficult history.

Līga Rušeniece: When you came we greeted each other in Latvian and you apologized saying that you were the only one in your family who doesn’t speak Latvian.

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: I and my wife have, of course, that small nation’s psychology regarding the identity. She talks with our eldest son in Latvian since the day he was born, while I talk to him in Armenian. The same is true about our youngest, our two-year-old triplets. With my wife, who understands Armenian, I speak English, sometimes Russian if that is what the other people around us require. Our ten years old son is fluent in Armenian and Latvian, speaks English and Russian. Some parents think that their kids have limited memory therefore they should speak only one language in the family, but I think that mother’s as well as father’s tongue are equally important for a person’s identity.

Līga Rušeniece: Are you ready for the possibility sometime in the future that one identity could become dominant and the children would choose themselves to which culture they want to belong?

Ambassador Mkrtchyan: I believe that my kids will be equally good Latvians and Armenians and we don’t strive to make them “more Latvian” or “more Armenian”. It is important to avoid even the very thought that they would have to choose to which culture to belong to.

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