Return to Amasia Creates a Haunting Portrait of a Lost Home

Steven Winn on March 1, 2021
Return to Amasia composer Eric Hachikian

Since its founding in 1998, Music of Remembrance has been on a mission. In concerts, commissions, recordings, and education programs, the Seattle-based organization devotes itself to remembering the Holocaust in music. Such prominent figures as Jake Heggie, Thomas Pasatieri, and Gerard Schwarz are among those commissioned to create new works.

Return to Amasia, the final concert in MOR’s current virtual season, turns the focus, at least in part, to the Armenian genocide. In a six-movement string quartet paired with both still and filmic imagery, composer Eric Hachikian’s eponymous piece pays somber tribute to the World War I-era slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Empire Turks. Hundreds of thousands more were exiled.

A scene from Return to Amasia

Return, which is framed as a personal odyssey to revisit the composer’s Armenian grandmother’s birthplace, is heartfelt and haunting. Shots of a barren countryside, enduring stone walls, and an eternal-flame monument play off against a plangent and at times piquantly playful score. The piece reaches its emotional and expressive peak in the third movement Adagio.

As vintage photographs depict a seemingly endless stream of refugees, the music takes on a patient, broadening ache. There’s something Coplandesque in Hachikian’s material here, the long interwoven lines of the score suggesting an embracing, empathic humanity. It’s made all the more effective by the contrasting movements that precede and follow. A brief Brilliante sends a mordantly sweet bauble of light-fingered pizzicati aloft. The Dolce on the far side has a jaunty lilt, not unlike something the composer’s Armenian soulmate Aram Khachaturian might have written. Human misery and injustice are etched more vividly by these fleeting glimpses of a brighter life.

A scene from Return to Amasia

Not everything in this Return, which was originally conceived as a trio, works quite as well. The opening movement invokes a folk-music ethos but struggles to gain its footing. The closing Requiem, while eschewing sentimental excess, is perhaps too understated. Some of the imagery feels haphazardly inserted, without a strong organizing principle. But misgivings do not erode the work’s moving core.

Performing in COVID-19-time face masks against a brick wall at the Mercer Island Congregational Church near Seattle, violinists Mikhail Shmidt and Natasha Bazhanov, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, and cellist Sarah Rommel give clear, sensitive voice to Hachikian’s delicate merging of tenderness, anguish, and personal immersion in a past he’s determined never to forget.

The bill opens with works by three emigre composers. First up is the 1923 Elegie string quartet by Michel Michelet, a Russian-born film score composer who made his way to Hollywood from France after the Nazi invasion. After a long solo violin introit, the other three strings answer to reply and repurpose the themes (all four players from the Hachikian work are on the case here). Michelet uses close harmonies, tremolos, and quicksilver mood changes to conjure a mournful mood.

Paul Ben Haim’s Songs Without Words (1952) is the slightest work on the program. Transcribed here for viola (the aforementioned Assadi) and harp (Valerie Muzzolini Gordon), three semi-programmatic pieces rely on repetition to a fault. Short figures recur, get briefly developed, and return again to little effect. The closing “Sephardic Melody” is a welcome exception by this German-born composer, who fled his homeland for Palestine.

In his Podium Suite of 1928, the “famous Hungarian Dutchman” Géza Frid, a stateless Jew who found sanctuary in Amsterdam, makes virtuosity a beguiling virtue, fiddling ferociously. Violist Mikhail Shmidt teams up with pianist Jessica Choe. Together they create a whirlwind of rage and humor, violence, and pensive retreat. The Rite of Spring springs to mind.

A movement marked Rubato unfurls over a throbbing note in the piano’s deep bass. The closing L’Ultimo is by turns fretful and exultant, charging toward a high-octane finish, only to switch gears at the last minute and swoon into a flirty, swaying flourish. It’s completely unexpected and just right.

The church floor is festooned with ginkgo branches, an emblem, after some trees of that type survived the Hiroshima blast, of endurance and hope. Collectively if unevenly, the four pieces make the case for memory made palpable in the present tense.

Return to Amasia streams through March 7 at the Music of Remembrance website.