Native New Yorker Stepan Atamian studies comparative literature at Columbia University. His love of music, singing, in particular, compelled him to join six other Disporan youth in Armenia this summer for the second annual AGBU Musical Armenia Program. Here, Stepan shares impressions of his three-week stay in Armenia. “During the second week of AGBU’s Musical Armenia Program (or MAP, as we participants liked to call it), I received, perhaps, the greatest piece of singing advice in my life. My voice teacher said: ‘Even when you are singing the darkest Komitas song, you must always bring light to the subject.’ Although the advice might not seem particularly significant, they were the words that made everything come together in my vocal work. In just a few days, my entire approach to singing and technique had improved drastically, all thanks to this program.” Simply put, MAP is an extraordinary program and is, by far, the best way to understand and appreciate Armenian culture. Although MAP is, first and foremost, a program dedicated to Armenian music, it is also an immersion program in Armenian life. During the three-week program, we attended a dozen lectures led by leading experts in their respective fields - from studying Armenian musical notation systems, to learning about the various forms of Armenian epics. The lectures gave us the necessary background to appreciate the music each of us was studying individually. As a lieder singer, I naturally focused on the songs of Komitas Vardapet, and was fortunate to have a great teacher, Anna Mayilyan. A phenomenal interpreter of Armenian music herself, Anna coached me on six songs over three week. However, the word “coach” does not quite do her justice. Anna showed me the absolute joy of this extraordinary music, and I now see the ability to perform these songs as an immense privilege. Before the program, I thought singing Komitas was extremely different from the Schubert on which I had concentrated, yet Anna pointed out the similarities between the German and Armenian schools of singing. Though the lessons were intensive and challenging, they never felt like work. Due to the nature of the program, most of our time was spent in class. However, that does not mean we only worked. Inessa, our terrific Program Coordinator, scheduled events based on our preferences, so everybody got to do something they enjoyed. Other than the obvious sights in Yerevan, we made day trips to Gyumri and Lake Sevan. We attended a wide variety of performances at different venues, from bands at informal jazz clubs to Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, performed at the A. Spendiaryan National Opera and Ballet Academic Theater Symphonic Orchestra. All I will say about Yerevan nightlife is that it must be experienced to be believed. Most importantly, we had fantastic Armenian food every day. I never thought I would say this, but I think I finally satiated my need for manti during this trip. I used to defend Armenian music primarily due to my heritage, but, after my experience with MAP, I have come to understand that Armenia truly boasts some of the greatest composers of all time. From the sacred songs of Mesrob Mashtots to Tigran Mansurian’s concertos, Armenian music is rich, and is underappreciated outside of Armenia. For these reasons, I am taking it upon myself to introduce this music to others. Right now, I am forming a new recital program of both German and Armenian songs. In addition, as a longtime radio programmer at WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station, I have begun a recurring feature on Armenian music, and the response from listeners has been enormous. In just three weeks in Armenia, I realized that this music’s appeal does not just lie in the fact that it is Armenian. Quite simply, this is some of the most compelling music ever composed. Regardless of their backgrounds, people respond to this music immediately. It is thanks to MAP, that I have realized this and will continue to show others the joys of the extremely special repertoire that is Armenian music.”


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