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Tradition's Resonance

The ancient culture of Armenia comes alive at Lark Musical Society.

February 23, 2001|SUZIE ST. JOHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Founding the Lark Musical Society was the realization of a dream Vatsche Barsoumian had carried with him since leaving his native Lebanon for the United States in 1986. The Glendale organization was formed 10 years ago by Barsoumian and a group of musicians, music teachers and community leaders all sharing the common goal of the advancement of Armenian music.

"There is a line that threads along the music that is very obvious and very unique," said Barsoumian, the society's music director. "We want to maintain and preserve it."

The thread he speaks of connects more than just musical notes: It also brings together people from different countries all sharing a common heritage. That cultural history dates back to a time when Armenia was more than a small country of 3 million people situated between Turkey, Iran and the Republic of Georgia.

"Historically, the Armenian Kingdom was much more spread out than what we have today," said Sylva Natalie Manoogian, an international library consultant for the society. "It stretched as far as the Mediterranean Sea. You will find people from several neighboring countries, like Lebanon, share in the Armenian heritage without actually being from today's Armenia."

A series of artistic events is planned throughout this year to mark the Lark Musical Society's 10th anniversary. The next concert, "Visions of St. Gregory: A Celebratory Offering of Sacred Music Proclaiming the 1,700th Anniversary of Armenian Christianity" will take place Sunday evening.

The concert will be a presentation of the gems and jewels of Armenian church music, Barsoumian said. It will feature compositions dating to the 5th century, including choir and solo performances accompanied by ballet.

"It is a very completely unique and individual look at Christianity," Barsoumian said.

When Lark opened its doors in 1991 and started offering concerts of Armenian instrumental music and songs, Glendale's Armenian population--the largest in the United States--embraced it, Manoogian said.

"Identity is a very important thing to Armenians, and Lark offers us a way of not forgetting who you are," said Manoogian, whose family migrated from Armenia in 1904.

Through the overwhelming support of the community, Barsoumian was able to fulfill the remainder of his dream in 1996, adding a conservatory to the Lark Musical Society.

It offers private and group music instruction to all ages. There are currently 150 students ranging in age from 6 to 66.

Barsoumian said 90% of those enrolled are between the ages of 6 and 17, but the conservatory is open to anyone interested in Armenian music. In addition to the instrument instruction, students sing in choirs, learn Armenian dance, the history of the music, and study the fundamentals of harmony and music analysis and composition.

Classes are held each weekday after 3 p.m. and all day Saturday. The staff of 25 teach primarily in Armenian, but will use English if a student does not know the language or is having difficulty.

Sixteen-year-old Mary Kartalyan has been attending the conservatory since she was 12. Every Monday and Friday after finishing her academic classes at John Marshall Secondary School in Pasadena, she travels to Lark for a 90-minute dance class. She also spends each Saturday at Lark studying violin, practicing with the choir and taking other music-related classes. Mary said her day starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 6:30 p.m.

"It seems like a lot of time, but it's worth it," she said. "Some of my best friends also take classes here, and I take pleasure out of dancing. I used to have private lessons for the violin, but with Lark you are learning a variety of skills and we have to take exams, so it demands [that you] improve."

Dance was the most recent addition to the conservatory. The program was established in 1998 under the tutelage of dance director Sona Avetisyan. The three-year program teaches students to explore and master formal dance patterns and ballet movements. Instruction is offered at beginning and advanced levels.

For the monthly tuition of $110, students can enroll in as many classes as they like, but they must submit a written application and pass an admissions interview designed to evaluate how compatible the applicants are with the Lark program.

Upon acceptance, students take a series of placement tests to determine the correct level of instruction. The four levels are preparatory, beginner, intermediate and advanced.

Raffi Barsoumian, 15, has been taking classes at the conservatory since its inception but has no plans to become a professional musician.

"I plan to major in theater when I go to college, but I love playing the piano," said Raffi, the son of Lark's musical director. "The thing that's great about [the conservatory] is that you are studying with people who have the same interest as you. That helps your focus. Plus it makes it fun, and I look forward to coming here and spending time with my friends."

The elder Barsoumian said the conservatory's goal is not to make professional singers, dancers and musicians out of the students. "We are just trying to preserve Armenian music as best as we can," he said.

BE THERE

Armenian Christianity concert will be Sunday at 6 p.m. in the Glendale High School Auditorium, 1440 East Broadway. Tickets are $10-$50 and can be purchased at the door or in advance by calling the Lark Musical Society at (818) 500-9997.

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