Loris Tjeknavorian, born 13 October 1937 in Borujerd, Iran, is an internationally celebrated cultural figure. As one of the leading conductors of his generation, he has led international orchestras throughout the world: in Austria, UK, USA, Canada, Hungary, Copenhagen, Iran, Finland, USSR, Armenia, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Africa, Denmark, and Israel. As a composer Tjeknavorian has written 6 operas, 5 symphonies, choral works (among them God is Love, The Life of Christ, the oratorio Book of Revelation, and a requiem), chamber music, ballet music, pianoand vocal works, concerti for piano, violin, guitar, cello and percusion, as well as music for documentary and feature films.
His compositions have been performed by major orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, Philharmonic Orchestra Helsinki, American Symphony Orchestra in New York, Tehran Symphony Orchestra, Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, Haifa Symphony Orchestra, the Mexico Symphony Orchestra, London Percussion Virtuosi, Strasbourg Percussion Ensemble and English Chamber Orchestra. He has made some 100 recordings with RCA, Philips, EMI, ASV, and others.
Early years 1937-1969
Born in Borujerd, Iran in 1937 to immigrant Armenian parents, Tjeknavorian's early life was succinctly chronicled in the London magazine Gramophone in 1976:
“His father came from Eastern Armenia and his mother had fled from Western Armeniaduring the 1915 massacre…Influenced by three cultures, Armenian, Iranian and Western he benefited from a cosmopolitan upbringing. His grandfather, a doctor, liked to play the violin and as a boy Loris enjoyed listening to professional string-players (Russian, Armenian or Polish immigrants) in local cafés. Although not themselves musical, his parents wanted all three children (one boy, two girls) to play musical instruments. Eight-year-old Loris was given a violin. Despite the lack of a teacher, the boy began to study in earnest; before long he had composed a number of piano pieces, with no formal instruction whatsoever. At 16 he formed a four-part choir and organized and conducted his own orchestra in Teheran. A year later he was ready to leave for the Vienna Academy of Music as a violin and composition student. While there, he wrote a violin concerto, which received the ultimate endorsement from his teacher, Hans-Joachim Drevo, who was the soloist in the work’s première. Tjeknavorian graduated with honours.” (Gramophone, November 1976).
Shortly after his graduation, the Austrian music publisher Doblinger published four of his piano compositions as well as his Ballet Fantastique for three pianos, celeste and percussion in Vienna.
Following this fruitful period of education, Tjeknavorian went back to Iran in 1961, where he taught music theory at the Tehran Conservatory of Music. At the same time, he was appointed director of Tehran’s Music Archives and put in charge of collecting and researching traditional and modern Iranian folk music and instruments. He mounted the first Archives exhibition to great success, and began work on an opera based on the epic poem of Rostam and Sohrab.
Tjeknavorian returned to Austria in 1963 to further his studies in Salzburg to meet the renowned composer Carl Orff who was to become the young musician’s mentor and enthusiastic supporter. On hearing Tjeknavorian play sections of his opera Rostam and Sohrab Orff offered him a full one-year scholarship to stay in Salzburg to complete the first draft of the opera. In addition, Orff commissioned Tjeknavorian to compose piano music based on Armenian music for the Schulwerk, Orff’s system for teaching music. Tjeknavorian composed over 130 short pieces for beginning to advanced students. These are collected in two volumes called Kaleidoscope for Piano, portions of which were also published by Schott as Bilder Aus Armenia(Pictures from Armenia).
Tjeknavorian moved to the United States in 1965, where he began to study conducting at the University of Michigan. From 1966 to 1967 he was appointed composer-in-residence at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and from 1966 to 1970 head of the instrumental and opera departments at Moorhead University in Minnesota.
Back in Iran 1970-1975
In 1970, the Cultural Ministry of Iran offered Tjeknavorian the positions of composer-in-residence and principal conductor at the Rudaki Opera House in Tehran. While there he conducted a number of major operas, including his own Pardis and Parisa.
Tjeknavorian’s extensive study of the technical aspects of traditional Iranian instruments culminated with the composition of the dance-drama Simorgh, the first polyphonic composition scored entirely for Iranian instruments and based on themes from Zoroastrian myth and Persian mystical poetry. Following sold-out performances of the ballet in Tehran, the suite from Simorghwas recorded and released as an LP in London by Unicorn in 1975 to great critical acclaim. Writing about his unique compositional style, Gramophone praised the piece as “strangely beautiful”.
In Tehran Tjeknavorian’s talents found huge demand, and he soon became the leading composer of film music in Iran, scoring some 30 scores for documentaries and short and popular feature films, many of them classics of pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema. Among them was the award-winning films Bita and Tangsir. released in 1972-3 That same year Tjeknavorian received the Homayoun Order and Medal for Persepolis, his score for the spectacular Son et Lumiere show at the ancient Persian capital. The audience consisted of dignitaries and heads of state from around the world that had gathered in Iran for the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. The show was a highlight of the unprecedented event, and was followed by the release of the score by Philipps.
Back in the West 1975-1987
In 1975 Tjeknavorian relocated to London where he signed an "Exclusive Conducting" contract with the RCA recording company. His first release was the hugely acclaimed recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”) with the LSO, hailed in Gramophone as “…bold and exciting…” and by RCA as “an astounding performance of electrifying passion and nobility”.
Tjeknavorian’s sudden impact on the international music scene in London created a furor, with RCA running two-page advertisement in Gramophone proclaiming him “the greatest conductor of his generation”. Attended by talk-of-the-town performances at venues such as the Royal Festival Hall, Tjeknavorian followed this early success with a series of similarly acclaimed recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestraand the London Philharmonic Orchestra, including ground-breaking interpretations of Sibelius, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Dvorak, and Borodin. Tjeknavorian’s also quickly established himself as the world’s foremost interpreter of the symphonic music of Aram Khachaturian. His recording of the complete score of the ballet Gayaneh, the first and only of its kind, was hailed by the London critics as “first class” and “the most distinguished of the RCA recordings made by Loris Tjeknavorian” (Gramophone, April 1977 and June 1983).
1978 Tjeknavorian organized "Music Armenia", described in Gramophone as “the first Armenian Festival on foreign soil. During the day there were symposiums, conferences and comparative studies of Armenian sacred music from 5th to 10th century and in the evening, concerts presenting Armenian artists and composers.”
Speaking to the London magazine about the festival, Tjeknavorian explained:
"Being Christian, the first thing the Armenians did…was to translate the Bible as early as the fourth century AD. Then they started writing music in the fifth century. As soon as the alphabet was created by Saint Mashtoc the illuminator, the chants started to be written down in old neumes from the fifth century. Throughout the centuries the music was passed down by oral tradition and eventually the key for reading the old neumes was lost, and by the eighteenth century they could no longer decipher them. In the 19th century two priests Tntesian and Tashjian renotated all the different chants into new neaues.
When I was studying in Vienna I discovered the Armenian Mkhitarian Monastery there and found a wealth of these chants. I became so involved in searching through all the manuscripts that it took me more then 10 years to collect them from different Armenian churches and monasteries. I found seven different traditions amounting to several thousands of chants and melodies…After collecting the chants with the help of several priests from the Holly Ejmiadzin monastery transcribed them into modern notation. In 1977 the complete collection if chants and melodies in 16 volumes presented to head of the Armenian Apostolic church Chtolicos Vazken the First-
For his long and dedicated work Tjeknavorian was awarded the Order of “Gregory the Illuminator” by the late Catholicos Vazgen I.
It was far removed from my original idea of having the melodies just for my own compositions use, and I realized that it was of immense interest to musicologists.” (Gramophone, May 1979).
Taking some of the medieval chants he had rediscovered, Tjeknavorian composed the vocal work Life of Christ for solo Tenor , Baritone and male choir. first performed during the Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by the Ambrosian Singers. Many of Tjeknavorian’s most important compositions were written in this fruitful and personally difficult ten-year period culminating with, and immediately following, the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Foremost among his works during this time are his Second Symphony (Credo) and the oratorio The Book of Revelations, the second and third parts respectively of his trilogy on the Armenian Genocide begun with his groundbreaking First Symphony (Requiem for the Massacred) scored for trumpet and percussion and released in London by Unicorn in 1976. Another key work towards the end of this period was his ballet Othello, commissioned by the Northern Ballet Company and premiered in London in 1985 with Princess Ann in attendance. The recording of the piece released that year on EMI with the London Symphony Orchestra was praised by Gramophone as “enormously effective” (Gramophone, November 1985).
Soon after settling in New York in 1986, Tjeknavorian’s destiny was diverted by the devastating Armenian earthquake of December 1988. In response, Tjeknavorian organized a benefit concert at Carnegie Hallto raise relief funds for the victims. The concert featured Plácido Domingo, Mstislav Rostropovich, Alexander Toradze and stars of the New York Metropolitan Opera, including Mirella Freni, Frederica von Stade, Samuel Ramey and Elena Obraztsova. Ticket sales for the event raised $500,000 that was sent to Armenia, where Tjeknavorian relocated a few months later, having been appointed Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra (APO) in Yerevan.
For Tjeknavorian, the most important task was rebuilding the cultural life of Gyumri(then Leninakan), Armenia’s second largest city, which had been devastated by the earthquake. In 1991 Tjeknavorian announced his intention to go on a pilgrimage walk from Yerevan to Gyumri in order to raise funds for rebuilding efforts. Thousands of people joined him along the way and a huge percentage of the Armenian population donated money for the cause. Fifteen million rubles, worth around 20 million dollars at the time, were collected nationwide. Unfortunately, several months later the Soviet ruble was devalued and Tjeknavorian was compelled to seek additional money from private sources. Tjeknavorian took over the huge communist party headquarters, which had been destroyed, and in seven years transformed it into the first Academy of Music and Arts in Gyumri. During this time, his fundraising led to the founding of a symphony orchestra, wind ensemble, choir and dance ensemble, the renovation of the theater and restarting of the Gyumri TV station, and purchasing musical instruments for the orchestra and band, whose instruments had all been destroyed by in the earthquake, as well as ten grand pianos for the Arts and Music Academy.
Tjeknavorian was also instrumental in the 1991 campaign for Armenian independence. Through his tours in various Armenian cities and an all-night televised performance on national television two days before the measure passed on September 21, 1991, Tjeknavorian managed to increase the “Yes” vote for independence from 30 to 96 per cent. Given the heated controversy and popular passions surrounding the question of independence, the peaceful nature of the victory was unique, reached by Tjeknavorian through the power of music and a positive cultural message.
Following independence, Tjeknavorian served on the committee to reinstate the pre-communist Armenian flag and the national coat-of-arms. He was especially influential in the adoption of the national anthem, “Mer Hayrenik" (Our Fatherland), for which he rewrote the words for the first stanza. Tjeknavorian also renamed the two major avenues of Yerevan during last year of the Soviet period, from Lenin and Red Army to Mesrop Mashtots (creator of the Armenian alphabet in 451) and Gregory the Illuminator (founder of the Armenian church in 301 AD) respectively. The renaming reflected his philosophy of "Faith and Culture" as the twin foundations upon which the Armenian nation must be re-built. During the crippling energy blockade between 1992 and 1995 - a result of the Karabakh war - the capital was gripped by shortages of food, water, heat and electricity. Faithful to his vow that “the doors of culture must never be closed”, Tjeknavorian maintained weekly concerts at this time, including a regular series of spiritual music concerts every Saturday in anticipation of the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. Organizing transportation for the musicians and securing their daily needs, installing power generators and electric heaters and ensuring constant power supply in the building, Tjeknavorian turned the Aram Khachaturian Hall into a sanctuary of culture and faith, and was instrumental in lifting the spirits of the thousands who packed the hall each week. This phenomenon was memorialized by numerous eyewitnesses of the time, including former Russian Ambassador Vladimir Stupishin, who wrote at length about Tjeknavorian’s activities in his memoirs.
During his eleven-year collaboration with the APO, his recordings with the orchestra for ORF (the Austrian radio and television station) and ASV (an English recording company) achieved worldwide recognition; they frequently toured Europe, the United States, Canada, Iran and Lebanon. For three successive years, from 1991 to 1993, the APO was the resident orchestra in the ORF benefit program Licht Ins Dunkel in Vienna.
In 2000, Tjeknavorian resigned from the APO in order to devote more time to composing. During this period he also conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and performed at the San Francisco Opera House, the Contemporary Music Festival and at the Vienna Music Festival in Hong Kong and Bangkok. He conducted the Austrian premiere of his opera Rostam and Sohrab at the Festspielhaus in St. Pölten.
From 2009 to the present Tjeknavorian has continued to devote his time to composing, as well as painting and writing short stories. Among his most recent works are the operas Zahak (libretto based on Ferdowsi’sShahnameh) and Mowlana and Shams-e Tabriz (libretto based on the poetry of Rumi), as well as the chamber opera “The Final Hour of Sadegh Hedayat” (libretto based on “The Blind Owl” and other works by the Iranian poet Sadegh Hedayat). Other works include his second concerto for violin and chamber orchestra, a work for solo piano titled "1915", and two major symphonic suites: King Cyrus, about the ancient Persian king, and Takhti, dedicated to the celebrated Iranian wrestler. Tjeknavorian’s paintings were exhibited at the Gallery Shirin in Tehran, Gallery Maryam Seyhoun in Los Angeles, and twice at the House of the Artists in Tehran. His series of short stories, written in English, will be published in the near future.
Tjeknavorian’s recent performances include benefit concerts in Tehran and Los Angeles for the organization MAHAK on behalf of children with cancer, a series of concerts with the Armenian Chamber Orchestra at the Talar Vahdat Hall in Tehran.
In 2011 the Iranian BARBAD recording company issued a 20-CD box set of Tjerknavorian’s major works (symphonies, choral works, ballet, chamber music, operas, etc.) plus 2 DVDs of his opera Rostam & Sohrab.
In 2013 performance of his Ararat Suite with the Sacramento Symphony, and the world premiere of his King Cyrus symphonic suite with the San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra in In 2011 the Iranian BARBAD recording company issued a 20-CD box set of Tjerknavorian’s major works (symphonies, choral works, ballet, chamber music, operas, etc.) plus 2 DVDs of his opera Rostam & Sohrab.
During 2009-2016 Tjeknavorian undertook the copying of all of his scores electronically using the Sibelius format. The scores totaled 20,000 pages and included operas, ballets, orchestral suites, concertos, choral works, chamber music, as well as solo works for strings, piano, percussion, and other instruments.
During this period Tjeknavorian concertized extensively in Iran, where his performances have been wildly popular. He conducted numerous concerts in Tehran's Vahdat Hall and the Concert Hall of the Milad Tower. He also received commissions to compose two hour-long choral-orchestral compositions. The most recent is "Salam" (Peace), based on the poems of Ferdowsi, Sadi, Hafez and Rumi, which will be premiered during the 2016-17 season.
In April 2016 Tjeknavorian exhibited about 70 of his paintings at the gallery of Tehran's Home of The Artists. The following August he conducted two concerts of his orchestral works, one with the Tehran Symphony and the International Youth Orchestra from Rome and the other of his Love Songs with the string section of the Tehran Symphony at the Niayavaran Palace.
The New Barbad company recently issued 2 DVD box sets of 5 DVDs each. These are live performances of the Mozart and Verdi Requiems, Beethoven Symphony 5 and the finale of the 9th, Scheherazade, as well as series of his own compositions (Ararat Suite, Pardis & Parisa Suite, Love Song Suite, etc) with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra.