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Catherine Manoukian

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One Week in The Life of Catherine Manoukian

Some Airport Hotel outside Paris, France

Concert Date: 01 March 2008
Repertoire: Elgar Violin Concerto
With: Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Jonas Alber

I'm en route back to Toronto, having arrived here from Yerevan, Armenia a few hours ago. (I hope you'll forgive that I stopped for some steak and fries before committing these thoughts to screen.) It used to be the case that the time I rotated 180˚ onstage while playing solo Bach was the most noteworthy thing that ever happened to me on a concert trip (I'll tell you about it some other time). That incident has now been trumped by the witnessing of my first political uprising and army crackdown. It's very calm here in Paris, so it's hard to believe that I woke up this morning to find several tanks and a large army outside my hotel, or that I passed dozens of burnt-out cars and broken windows on my way to the airport, or that I was unable to play my concert last night because of a government-issued ban on public gatherings.

I arrived in Yerevan six days ago at around midnight. (Through some coincidence, I always seem to arrive in Yerevan at an ungodly hour.) I went to bed as soon as I got to my hotel room. I skipped breakfast the next morning (bad, I know) and worked on my Elgar (good, I know), before going down to one of the hotel's restaurants for lunch. I was staying at the Yerevan Marriott Hotel (formerly the famous Hotel Armenia in Soviet times), which overlooks Republic Square, home of Armenia's government buildings. That was when I first noticed something was weird: a group of Italian businessmen was huddled by a large window in the restaurant, staring out at a massive collection of people who were brandishing signs expressing support for the government.

Here's what was happening. The Republic of Armenia held presidential elections last month. Although international election-watchers agreed that everything went smoothly, one of the losing candidates decided that he…well, didn't lose. His supporters were holding demonstrations in another part of the city, and the president-elect's supporters were holding counter-demonstrations in this part of the city.

The “other part of the city” turned out to be more relevant to me than I had guessed. All of the APO's concerts are held at the Aram Khatchaturian Concert Hall, which is part of a building known as The Opera (the other part of The Opera is the hall actually used for operas). Most of Yerevan's cultural activity takes place here. The election protestors couldn't use Republic Square (since it was being used by the counter-protestors), so they congregated around The Opera. The situation pretty much remained the same throughout the week: I'd pass the protesters on my way in and out of rehearsals. They were very loud and apparently very fond of sunflower seeds – there were seed remnants strewn everywhere. At one point, the APO actually locked all of the entrances to the hall, because the demonstrators had started wandering in looking for bathrooms! (I don't know whether or not that had anything to do with the sunflower seeds.) At one point I was personally affected: I slipped on some loose pavement on Friday trying to take an alternative route and pulled a neck muscle. But no worries – there's a fantastic massage therapist at the Marriott's spa. Look him up if you're ever in Yerevan. His name is Spartacus. No joke.

The situation did change – rather dramatically - the morning of the concert (yesterday). When we showed up for the dress rehearsal, The Opera was surrounded by riot police, who let us in only after a not unsubstantial amount of explaining and pleading. Maestro Alber did manage to get through his entire Rachmaninoff third symphony once we were finally let in, but we were only about a quarter of the way through the Elgar when the orchestra manager came in and announced that mass gatherings weren't allowed for the rest of the day. So no concert. In response, Eduard Topchjan (the APO's music director), threw on his coat and said, “well, how about dinner?”.

Things got even stranger after that. The dispersed protesters started rioting and soon many of the major streets were lined with soldiers. The concierge at the Marriott slipped notes under our doors cautioning us to draw our curtains and to stay away from the windows – for once I was grateful they'd run out of good rooms overlooking the square and I'd gotten stuck in one facing some random alley. (That view actually reminded me of the kind I've had out of every Manhattan hotel room I've ever stayed in.) Eduard Topchjan's dinner plans hadn't included walking back to the hotel accompanied by sounds of yelling and machine-gun fire, but we got that anyway. It was really surreal, like something out of a textbook I was quizzed on in first-year history. The government has since declared a 20-day state of emergency. Everything was disturbingly quiet this morning when I was driven to the airport.

So…that was my week. I'll sign off now and go prepare for my Beethoven recital in Toronto this week. I don't think that one will be cancelled – unless something crazy happens, like six inches of snow.

updated: 4 years ago