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Back, with flash

Aram Khachaturian was once as well known as his 'Saber Dance.' Then came Stalin -- and now, a revival.

September 14, 2003|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

Khachaturian. You may not know his name -- but you've almost certainly heard his music.

If you've seen the movies "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Caligula" or "National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation" -- you've heard Khachaturian. If you've ever turned on a television -- you've heard Khachaturian, since his music has been used in countless shows, among them "Ally McBeal," "The Simpsons" and "Scooby Doo," as well as in commercials selling everything from vacuum cleaners to Aussie Hair Care products.

Aram Ilyich Khachaturian was once one of the world's most famous classical musicians. His work -- including three symphonies and a much-loved Violin Concerto -- was consistently performed by the finest orchestras and soloists around the world. He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a program of his own compositions. When he traveled, he was greeted as a celebrity, meeting with Chaplin in Geneva, Hemingway in Cuba and Pope John XXIII in Rome. He even reached the Top 10 on the U.S. pop charts with Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd's rendition of his bustling, xylophone-accented "Saber Dance."

This year marks the centennial of Khachaturian's birth, yet one of the few places you don't hear Khachaturian is at classical music performances. In the 25 years since his death, the composer's popularity has declined and his critical reputation has suffered. "I can't remember the last time one of his symphonies was performed here in the West," says Richard Taruskin, a professor of music at UC Berkeley and author of "Defining Russia Musically."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 16, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Ballet dates -- An information box accompanying an article on composer Aram Khachaturian in Sunday's Calendar gave the wrong dates for performances of his ballet "Spartacus" at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. They will be Friday and Saturday, not Saturday and Sunday.

"During his life, he was perhaps the most famous of Soviet composers ... more popular than Shostakovich and rivaled only by Prokofiev -- but these days it's different."

That situation may be about to change, however, for this fall will see a veritable Khachaturian cavalcade. It will include a new documentary film about him and a "Centennial Album" CD, as well the start of a touring presentation of his piano music by the Armenian American pianist Sahan Arzruni.

According to Constantine Orbelian, music director of the Philharmonia of Russia, Khachaturian's work has been neglected "not because it should be neglected, but because much of it hasn't been brought to the public."

The dramatic phrasing and emotional rawness of that music have often prompted moviemakers to use it, but the drama and emotions of the composer's life are the focus of the documentary, titled simply "Khachaturian" (but grandly subtitled "A film about one composer's life and music during the great Soviet experiment"). The film, which will receive its world premiere at the Hollywood Film Festival on Oct. 18, shows that his biography was perfectly suited to the screen: It has a rags-to-riches element, political intrigue and a larger-than-life antagonist -- in fact, one of the 20th century's greatest villains, Josef Stalin.

Early in his musical career, the Georgian-born Khachaturian was the darling of the Kremlin. "He was a very good Soviet boy," Taruskin observes. "His life and success were very much a product of Soviet arts policy." Khachaturian's traditional-sounding compositions and his humble background (his parents were poor Armenian shopkeepers in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi) made him a shining example of the new socialist values -- so much so that despite learning music only after moving to Moscow in his late teens, he was chosen by Stalin to help form, and later serve as deputy chair of, the Soviet Composers Union.

"He bought into the Soviet system like a child," says pianist Dora Serviarian-Kuhn, executive producer of the documentary. If one needed more evidence of Khachaturian's devotion, in 1942, when he received the Stalin Prize -- 100,000 rubles for the ballet score "Gayane," source of the "Saber Dance" -- he returned the money to the government, insisting that it be used to buy tanks for the Soviet army.

Denounced and exiled

Still, this devotion went for naught in 1948, when Stalin did an about-face and denounced Khachaturian -- along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, among others -- for writing "formalist, anti-populist" music. The composer, who only 10 years earlier had titled a piece "Ode to Stalin," was crushed.

"After he was denounced, Khachaturian would go cry on his pillow," says Serviarian-Kuhn, and indeed the documentary contains Soviet newsreel footage of a devastated Khachaturian, taken while the charges were read aloud. "Of course, the denunciations had nothing to do with Khachaturian's music," Taruskin says. "He was only named because he was famous. It was the Communists' way of saying, 'You think you are big? We are bigger.' " Khachaturian formally apologized and accepted exile from Moscow without complaint.

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