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Jewish composer stands tall in Armenia

Armenian Jewish composer Willy Weiner on a recent visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. (Courtesy of Willy Weiner)

Armenian Jewish composer Willy Weiner on a recent visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. (Courtesy of Willy Weiner)

YEREVAN, Armenia, Sept. 11 (JTA) — The growing popularity of a Jewish composer in Armenia is sealed in plastic wrapping. The DVD version of the sold-out performance of Willy Weiner’s orchestral works, performed to a packed audience in Armenia’s major symphony hall as part of a celebration of Armenia’s 14 years of independence, is helping to boost Weiner’s stature. The concert, which featured Weiner’s Yiddish-themed hybrid classical and jazz orchestral compositions, was funded and organized entirely by the Armenian government as part of a cultural program titled, “Through Culture to Tolerance.” The concert was organized as a celebration of Armenia’s minorities and their contribution to the country’s culture. “It was a concert that went into Armenian history. Never has something like this happened before,” Armen Arnautov, Weiner’s friend and producer, told JTA. Not bad in a country where the Jewish community barely exceeds 100 people. Armenia has always had a reputation for its lack of institutionalized anti-Semitism that became the hallmark of Soviet rule, but it was still a rarity for the government to sponsor an event featuring the Jewish-themed works of an Jewish composer. For those not acquainted with the sound of the shofar or the klezmer exchanges of violin and horn melodies, the meanings of the Hebrew and Yiddish titles of each of Weiner’s pieces were explained during the concert. Weiner is 51, wiry, full of energy, and always with a cigarette in his mouth. In his apartment, his piano cover is perpetually raised, seemingly always ready to try out a new composition. Born and raised in Armenia, Weiner graduated as a violinist from the prestigious Yerevan Conservatory in 1979 and toured extensively with Armenia’s orchestras as a professional musician. But it was not until about 10 years ago that he began to compose his own music. In the late 1990s, Weiner immigrated to Israel with the rest of his family, his two sisters and his parents — but decided that he could not stay. “I drew great inspiration from Israel, but I could not write music there,” Weiner told JTA. “When I was in Israel, I did not write a single note, but as soon as I came back to Armenia, the music began to flow.” Weiner jokingly refers to himself “as the Jewish composer of the Armenian people.” That title might not be far from the truth. “I never decided to compose Jewish-themed music, it all happened on its own,” Weiner told JTA. “Since I was a child, my parents gave me an appreciation for the culture, traditions and music of my people. Jewish music could always be heard in our house. Naturally, this reflected itself in my work.” Since last year’s performance, Weiner’s work has been receiving increasing media attention and wide airplay on Armenian radio and TV. He has received critical acclaim for his work from Armenian, Russian and Jewish artists. Joseph Kobzon, a Russian Jewish singer, called Weiner’s work the most “pure classical rendition of national musical intonations, absolutely free from any pop fluff.” Armenian cultural magazine Erevan ran a profile of Weiner to familiarize the country with its rising star in modern orchestral music. But not all Armenians were thrilled by the airplay of Weiner’s Jewish-themed works in the country’s public cultural programs. “There were some who said, ‘We have plenty of great Armenian musicians, why are we playing Jewish music,’ ” Arnautov told JTA. Weiner’s flawless knowledge of both Armenian and Hebrew reflect his dual identity. His compositions are unmistakably Jewish. His synthesis of classical and jazz styles, molded by Ashkenazi musical traditions, is an exploration of his ancestral heritage. “My music is not abstract. Every piece is rooted in a concrete scene or a situation and the sounds come right out of that environment,” Weiner said. One of his pieces, “Shtetl,” attempts to give a glimpse of life into a small Jewish village as it follows an old rabbi driving a carriage through town at dawn. “Each creak, each step of the rabbi’s old horse, the rabbi’s cough, the early morning chatter on the streets of this village — they are all embodied and explored in my music,” Weiner told JTA. Weiner’s first album, “Exodus,” was released under an Armenian record label in 2003. The material for his next album, “Chalom,” Hebrew for “Dream,” has been recorded, but not yet released. Weiner is currently working on material for “Ami,” his third album.

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