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Entrancing Armenian works

Sunday's concert was a rare chance to hear this rich ethnic music.

Where does this music come from? Why is it so hypnotic? Who are these people around me?

Such questions no doubt arose in the minds of seasoned Philadelphia Chamber Music Society patrons during Sunday's concert, "Hayren," which broke with convention not in the name of innovation but to claim an elemental sense of identity - Armenian, specifically - with a musical richness that could entrance ears of any ethnicity.

The concert was headed by classical violist Kim Kashkashian, who has been exploring her Armenian roots in recent years and breaking with typical formats. Sunday, she arrived with a battery of percussion played by Robyn Schulkowsky and a pianist/vocalist who happened to be celebrated composer Tigran Mansurian.

Heralded by acclaimed ECM discs (the latest is Neharót), the concert packed Settlement Music School in a program repeated that night at New York's Le Poisson Rouge. The local Armenian community was in evidence: Mansurian, 70, is to Armenia what Aaron Copland is to America. The other composer was the idolized Vartabed Komitas (1869-1935), who gave Armenia a voice.

Komitas' collection of folk songs and Mansurian's Three Taghs were reverse negatives of each other - Komitas harmonically dense and feverish, weighted more toward accompaniment than the voice, Mansurian reflecting a Slavonic church-music influence with teeming though fluid vocal lines and spare accompaniment. They share a periphery full of tangy Middle Eastern microtones that, to Western ears, make the music go mildly haywire. One moment you're lulled; the next, you're wide-eyed and arrested.

More sophisticated Mansurian works such as Lied, Gebilde und Wandschirm had an expanded, almost Debussian harmonic palette, only spikier. The percussion enveloped the ears with gongs played with soft sticks and xylophones with bows creating sound shapes similar to those heard in George Crumb's recent folk-song settings.

A take-what-you-can-get attitude, however, was needed: Such programs aren't often heard in these parts. However, Mansurian's singing was puzzling. Is his thin, semi-audible voice somehow appropriate to this music? He captures the bent notes and microtonal flourishes authentically. But recordings made by Komitas - easily found on the Internet - bristle with emotional aches and pains, fused with a soaring pride in who and what he was. Yet, as unflattering as the comparison is, I wouldn't have found Komitas' remarkable voice were it not for Mansurian.