At the beginning of the year, if someone had showed me my diary for the 19th-22nd April 2012 and I’d seen the word Yerevan printed there, I wouldn’t have had a clue what that meant. Would I have even guessed that it was a place? A conductor, or composer maybe? Or a BBC project involving some exotic instruments?
But a place it is, and I set off, firstly to Paris, feeling vaguely like Indiana Jones on one of those flights to distant parts he does, then to catch another flight to the capital of Armenia. Not a place I thought I’d ever get to visit, why would I? It’s not on the regular British orchestra’s concert tour path, nor anywhere near it. It was work, yet I wasn’t taking my trombone, or any concert clothes; this was altogether a flight into the unknown. Having had such a very fortunate and widely-travelled career, the opportunity to add to my list of countries hardly ever comes along anymore, so Armenia was a glad and surprising addition.
I’d been invited by the team organising the newly-formed I, Culture Orchestra, to come and hear some auditions for places in that orchestra. No performing needed, as I say, no gig, no being on stage, just turn up and listen to 20 Armenian music students playing Bach followed by excerpts. No trombones at all either, there were mostly violins, a few violas, one cello, one clarinet, one oboe and 2 horns. And one surprise extra audition, which we didn’t know about till literally the moment it happened.
The orchestra, the ICO, was set up and did a resident course in Poland (where the founding organisation is) last year, but in 2012 things have expanded, and a team of tutors, mostly from the UK, has been commandeered to help its progress. Without going into political ramifications and aspirations, it’s an orchestra comprised of 18-28-year-olds from Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Armenia. I’d had various emails and conversations with Kasia, right-hand girl to Eva, the manager of the whole project. Those two, and an interchangeable couple of others, had spent the last two weeks travelling round all those countries, having set up the auditions there, with 2 tutors flying out to each place to judge the applicants. Armenia was the last stop on their frenetic fortnight, and my fellow tutor was David Watkin, who leads the cellos in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and who I hadn’t seen since we were in NYO. We had probably overlapped several times when he was in the Philharmonia, but the last time we could positively identify would have been 27 years ago. We met at Gate 56 in Paris, and were now flying over barren snow-flecked brown mountains as the plane descended into Yerevan Airport.
As we came through after Customs to the airport itself, which always feels like you’re facing a huge bank of photographers, I looked for a burly taxi driver standing holding a sign with our names on it. But almost immediately I saw two women suddenly become as animated as schoolgirls and start to wave and jump and move towards us. These were Kasia, who done all the correspondence so far, and Ewa, the boss of the project. Some excited introductions, and we all got into the waiting cab outside, and headed off to the town centre hotel in the darkness. I’ve always loved arriving somewhere at night – my first view of Tokyo was an unforgettable blast of neon and flyovers – and I did my usual open-mouthed scrutiny of this new country. It wasn’t as astonishing as Japan but there were a few glitzy clubs and eateries, often for some reason in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. (We discovered later that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, France was the first European country to open its borders to the Armenians. I guess it just shrugged). In the town we passed a spectacular display of multi-coloured fountains in a vast square, with loud music booming from speakers, then we reached our hotel, the Golden Tulip. It was certainly more swanky than I was expecting (I’d had predictably dismal expectations of this ex-Soviet outpost) and we all decided to go out in 15 minutes for something to eat. We gathered in the bar area and David broached a subject that I’d also been wondering about: we’d been unable to get hold of any local money yet, Armenian drams. We were immediately told that we wouldn’t need any! All meals, cabs etc would be on them. That was a nice surprise. We met Marta, the third member of the ICO team. She generally organised meals and meetings, and was the specific language expert. Ewa (pronounced Eva) and Kasia were both very good English speakers, and spoke Russian as well, but Marta also knew Armenian. Which is an incredible-looking language, by the way. The word for Men on a toilet sign is something resembling Snwulmnnluwlug.
We followed Marta up the street and came to a few steps leading up to an open room which was a cross between a cloakroom and a library, then up a spiral staircase and found ourselves in an obviously traditional Armenian restaurant. My delight at suddenly being in such authentic surroundings was diffused by the clamour of the authentic band, sitting by the door as we came in, the singer proclaiming to an almost empty room of wooden tables. He and they were almost overwhelming in this space, and for a moment we thought we’d have to leave, as conversation was impossible, but they stopped after one more song, rather suddenly actually, as we shouted our orders into the waitress’s face. Unsure about what to eat, or how much of it, (especially as they were paying) I underdid things and just ordered a starter of Dulma. The waitress insisted several times that this was “for one person, one, one” and I so I thought I’d decide on a main course after that. I lost track of what others had ordered in the general new situation and clamour of the band’s third and fourth songs. All in all, salads arrived, a plate of Imam Bayaldi, that Turkish aubergine and tomato dish, a basket of various breads, and drinks: wine for everyone but me, I was too thirsty and wanted local beer. The Imam Bayaldi was the best I’ve had. Others have been a bit watery; this had big whole cloves of garlic in it, also peppers, and the sauce was much punchier than previous Turkish versions, including in Turkey. As for the Dulma “for one”, it was, as expected, a version of Greek Dolma, stuffed vine leaves, but there were fourteen of them. When I ordered it I’d said that everyone should share it, but there were no takers. And as others had asked for a rather hefty soup, I soon realised that stuffed vine leaves was going to be my whole dinner. I managed about 4 of them, pinched some Imam Bayaldi, and ordered more beer.
Two brief things about the food. We noticed over the course of our stay that a lot of the self-proclaimed Armenian specialities were adopted. Dulma was Dolma. The Imam Bayaldi didn’t even change its spelling. One of the salads was plainly Tabbouleh, the zingy Lebanese concoction with bulgar wheat and fresh parsley. There were other examples in later meals. There’s obviously a huge Turkey-to-North-Africa influence here. Populations move around. This is not to say that the Armenian versions were bad copies, on the contrary, mostly they were better, I thought so anyway. Greek vine leaves are stuffed with a savoury rice mixture; the Dulma I was given were filled with spicy pork mince. As I’ve said, the Imam Bayaldi was tastier.
In the basket of bread was a papery item, folded like napkins, which looked like sheets of unravelled loofah. The waitress confirmed that this was lavash, and I was pleased with myself for asking. The one thing I knew about Armenian cuisine I’d found in an article about 6 months earlier. The writer had described a hideous and probably life-threatening dish of boiled cows foot stew, and the picture with the article more than added to its repellance. An almost exclusively peasant party piece, it is cows feet simmered all night, then served as a hearty mushy gloop in the morning before going out to the fields. There’s more. Nothing is added to the hooves during the cooking (and by the way, someone stays up all night to stir the thing occasionally) so the real flavour of the feet can permeate the water they’re cooking in. (The feet are cleaned, scrubbed, shaved etc thoroughly before all this). Then at about 8ish, the neighbours gather round for the feast. You take a bowlful, add just a load of salt and raw garlic, and eat it with the lavash bread. Or you can soak the bread in the gloop, to make it more gloopy. This is washed down with many shots of vodka before heading off to use ploughs or threshers, or perhaps scythes for the rest of the day. Well it would certainly give you some vigour, for a while anyway.Though I’ve read elsewhere that it’s a feast for holidays, still always eaten first thing in the morning, and that after the meal people fall asleep till the early evening. The whole deal is called khash, and the picture with the original article showed big lumps of congealed yellow fat floating on the top of the gloop soup, like butter but not as healthy. I call this one power breakfast.
After our first night meal, having now all met, we drifted back to the hotel and called it a night. Time to do some work tomorrow.
The auditions were in the Yerevan Music Academy, a huge, forbidding building about 10 minutes away. Very foursquare and grey-stony, with about 6 storeys of wide wooden corridors with practice rooms on each side. By the stairs on each floor there was a glass booth, where a woman, a sort of janitor I suppose, sat with her papers and coffee and cigarettes all day. Wandering down one of these corridors at one point, glancing right and left, it seemed appropriate that the sound of Pictures at an Exhibition came from one of the rooms. Someone was bashing the hell out of it too. High up, we were shown to a concert room, with a platform and a piano. We started at half past ten with seven violins. The format was that every candidate played some Bach (some chose another option) followed by some excerpts, either from the general repertoire or from the pieces the orchestra is to perform later in the year. We settled in to the first batch, and I had no idea of the shock that was about to happen, the storm just outside the room. I think it must have been after the third or fourth audition that I realised there was a bit of fuss at the back of the room, a stir, and realised that someone important had come in. With his translator, this was the Director of the Academy. Ewa had been expecting him to show up at some point, but, possibly in the hope that he wouldn’t, hadn’t said anything to us. A thickset man, tall, with a smooth tanned round face and formidable eyes, he wore a smart brown suit and eau-de-cologne, and shook our hands while his translator made introductions. The eyes were small and interested in you, like something watching its prey. But I got no sense of threat, I try not to judge appearances until they smile, and felt pleased to meet him. Before we knew what was going on he sat down between David and I at the panellist table and the next violinist came in. Fairly soon into her performance of the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet excerpt he started tapping loudly on the table. Easily loud enough for her to hear. I couldn’t believe it, and froze. This is so outrageously discourteous and intimidating to the musician that I really didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t stop him by grabbing his hand, though I genuinely came close to doing so. He went on and on. It was obvious that he was trying to insist on some sort of rigid tempo for his student, but his taps were so erratic, they had nothing to do with what she was trying to play. I desperately tried to concentrate on her efforts, to shut out the drumming going on next to me, but I couldn’t do it. I also couldn’t cover my ear on his side; it was crystal clear that we had a very tricky situation here and if he’d seen me do that he would not have been pleased. He talked to himself during the next excerpt, a sort of groaning conversation as if there was no-one else in the room. Between two excerpts his mobile went off loudly, and he answered it. The tension in the room was extraordinary. He stayed for 2 auditions, carrying on with his utterly intrusive table-tapping all the time. To me, the auditions are a fairly delicate time, I respect the weeks of practice that the nervous candidates have put in in order to do their very best and I wish them to do as well as possible. To have a bulldozer like that suddenly in the midst of this situation was, as I say, a shock.
His students however, the two that he was in there for anyway, seemed to take his behaviour in their stride, and gamely played on as if this were normal, which I‘m afraid I think it is. We western judges were sympathetic towards the candidates, willing them on, and making notes on musicality, intonation, interpretation, general performance and so on. It seemed the eastern way was simply to impose an ironlike rhythm onto every note. Yet as I say, his drumming was so wildly unrhythmic. It was an horrific half an hour and I’d never been put in a situation like that. But there was worse to follow.
Sometime after he’d left, we reached our break, just a 20-minute stretch-your-legs before the last eight auditions. Ewa told us the Director wanted to meet us in his office. To their credit, both her and especially Kasia had been just as dismayed and offended by his behaviour as David and I had. But business is business, and even I could see that this was a guy we had to play along with, as he’d have a big influence on the amount of financial support Armenia could provide for the whole project. For his part, therefore, he wanted to ensure that as many Armenian players were in the orchestra as possible. This was going to be tricky. As we trooped reluctantly down various corridors towards his room, Ewa saw the look on my face as I thought of the auditions he’d recently destroyed. She asked me what I thought, but I was literally speechless and couldn’t think what to say to her.
“Now you can see the Russian attitude to music”, she said.
“There’s not one ounce of music in that man”, I told her.
Through his secretary’s antechamber, we filed into his study. Sparse, a few pictures on the walls, some leather chairs, his solid oak chest, with another private room at the back. We huddled on his furniture and he told us to have some cognac. Perhaps his translator wasn’t quite as forceful as him, but with several auditions still to listen to, we somehow managed to decline this offer. He lit a cigarette, happy in his own territory but not smiling, and sat down with us. There were introductions again, with questions about who we were. The translator and Ewa did well to keep this moving; me, last in the line of introductions, I was still feeling dumbstruck, and hoped this part would peter out before I was interrogated. I didn’t want to share anything in this atmosphere.
“I’m just a musician” was an appropriate reply when the moment came, and things moved on. Without actually saying “So, you will take a lot of our students for your orchestra”, there were so many different nudges in that direction. Ewa kept smiling and managed to press her point about ‘partnerships’ and ‘working together’. Having declined the cognac for professional reasons, we couldn’t refuse coffees and teas, but these were slow in arriving, and our break was coming to an end. There’d be students upstairs waiting to play, and wondering what was going on. Watches were pointedly looked at, and we said we should get back.
“Another five minutes will be OK”, said the translator, prompted by the Director. No coffees, no teas. This felt so delicate. I felt that the guy was on a tripwire, and that you had to consider every word you said lest it displeased him, or wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
“So what do you think of our students?” said the translator.
“Oh, excellent, excellent…”
“The standard is good, yes”.
“Oh, excellent, yes, very good”.
No coffees, no teas.
“We really should be getting back upstairs” and some of us started easing ourselves out of our chairs.
“Five minutes, they will wait” – this time the Director spoke; so he knew a little English then. We sat down again.
At last the drinks arrived, tiny strong coffees for the others, a mug of (very nice) Armenian tea for me. The secretary, a small middle-aged woman smiled a lot, too much in fact, and did I imagine that she was actually frightened? Things relaxed a little, and soon we were out of there. It had been very much a sounding-out, for Ewa as well as the Director. We didn’t see him for the rest of the day and the relief was enormous.
I realised while we sitting there that I’d never met a powerful man before, powerful in this ugly, forceful way I mean. It was intense. For some reason Al Pacino as Michael Corleone came to me, a strong, utterly serious man with whom and to whom every word was dangerous. As we traipsed back to the auditions, David remarked “Nobody’s ever said no to that guy in his life”. I suppose we’d only just escaped with ours by declining the cognac.
After this, the last few auditioners came and went, and the string of violinists was brightened by a cellist and a clarinettist at the end. Of course I was leaving all judgements on the string players to David, and never once wrote a word in the Technique box on their forms. But I could get more involved when a wind player came in, and I was glad when a clarinettist turned up and he was one of the good ones. Perhaps even above sound and intonation, what I was always looking for was flexibility. If someone came in and played an excerpt beautifully, but could only play it at that speed and in that particular way, that was no good. Throughout both days, we asked candidates to play things in different ways; if they could adapt, they’d get a recommendation from me; if they kept playing doggedly in one style, and we’d give them several goes, they’d be no use to anyone in an orchestra.
We finished about 3, and Marta marched us off to a dark subterranean restaurant. It was called Giovanni’s, implying Italian, but the food was most things, some Italian dishes, but mostly most things, a general menu, and even including the dreaded khash. I ordered Beef Stroganoff. This was actually VERY sour (which was great), probably using the traditional Armenian yoghurt madzoon; was covered in fresh coriander and served with thin crispy fries; this more than made up for my meal of about 9 similarly-stuffed vine leaves last night. This was a lovely lunch, and I think everyone relaxed a bit and enjoyed themselves. After the stress of the Director, it was a lovely occasion. And this was the second meal we’d had together; none of the discomfort of our first meeting, not that there’d been much; we’d met, now we were friends working towards a common objective.
But there was a cloud on the horizon, a dark and stormy one: we were due to have an official meal tonight with The Director, his translator (a tall man who David had nicknamed Borat) and the Polish Ambassador.
But it looked like the Director had at least seen us as some sort of guests of interest, as someone had arranged for us to have a guided tour of the Khachaturian Museum. Khachaturian being the most famous Armenian composer, they are extremely proud of him, which is encouraging. With the relief of being away from The Director (I don’t think we ever found out his name) we’d had a rather bonhomous lunch and arrived at the museum in good spirits. Alas, the place was due to close in 10 minutes and a girl had hung around especially, waiting to take us round. It didn’t go very well, and I’m afraid we upset her by spotting on one wall the name of one of Khachaturian’s cousins, Vaginak. Seeing us failing to stifle a predictable reaction, she asked what the matter was, but we could hardly answer, and things went downhill from there. But she dutifully took us round the rest of the fairly small building, part of which was where Khachaturian used to live when he stayed in Yerevan. A lot of his original possessions had been transported there from his dacha in Russia, including his writing desk, a tall rostrum at which he’d have had to stand to compose.
Back out in the warm sunlight, we headed to the hotel and returned to our rooms for a couple of hours before facing the impending heavy weather of the official meal.
I gathered nervously (I can’t speak for the others) in the foyer of the Tulip and we headed off, in a new direction this time, down dark streets away from the Academy. We were led by Marta, as usual, and supposed to be heading for the Best Restaurant in Town. Without being arrogant at all, we’d been so well looked-after so far, and were obviously dealing with Powers That Be, I wasn’t surprised that we were heading for a restaurant with such a reputation. It was in the basement of a nearby hotel – apparently it’s impossible to eat at ground floor level in Yerevan. We passed through the room of diners to a single windowless cell at the back. No doubt this was the Executive Banqueting Salon, but it was just an enclosed small oblong. A white shell. We were the first to arrive, and the table was already set and full of starters. There was a banquette at the far end, obviously the throne of the room, and it was obvious who should sit there, when he arrived. Organising seating strategically, Ewa bit the bullet and put herself closest to him, while the rest of us tried to aim for the opposite end of the table. Soon the Polish Ambassador arrived, a clean young man in his 30s, easy company and friendly. And before long the man we’d dubbed ‘The King’ for tonight arrived, with Borat in tow. We all stood as he entered; in Armenia, women stand when the men enter the room, there were a lot of archaic rituals like that involving the women. Ewa and the girls, being professional and with objectives, took it easily in their stride. But I didn’t stand. There was a reason: I thought he was going to walk round the back of me (this was not a big room) and if I stayed sitting he’d have been able to do that, if I’d stood, my chair would have been in his way, that’s the way I was thinking: there was no arrogant disrespect from me. But it may have looked wrong to him, I was the only person in the room who stayed sitting. I’ve a lot to learn in these situations.
He accepted his place at the head of the table, Borat sat on one side, next to Ewa, the Ambassador on the other, then me. Bugger. So close to the action when this was so totally not where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be in this room, in this restaurant even, however good it was; I’ve never felt so uncomfortable or that I really, really didn’t want to be there. I remember literally thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here’. Small talk is not a forte of mine, so important diplomatic small talk is way off my scale. A niente, in fact. All I could think was Give me a beer and I might be able to relax and cope with this.
But a few years ago, I’d have reacted even worse, gone into a panic attack and started imploding. Nowadays, I know all sorts of things that help, and even before the beer arrived, we’d started nibbling at the hors d’oevres on the table, and they were interesting enough to keep things upbeat. The menacing presence was there at the end of the table, but it only spoke Armenian, and all the others spoke comfortably in three languages. The Ambassador was very easy-going, and he and Ewa conversed easily, as did Borat. This was all conducted in English, by the way, purely for the benefit of David and I. Another example of how respectfully we were treated. The Director lolled in his cushions, slunk down low like a Maharaja.
Drinks arrived, and the atmosphere warmed. We had a couple of courses, and the Director proposed a toast. Toasts are really big affairs in Armenia, they’re more like whole speeches. Ewa had made one earlier, and, even aware of this fact, had kept hers short, friendly yet businesslike. She was a master of that sort of thing, getting the right pitch to her words. The Director was less amiable. First of all he brusquely told Borat not to translate, and spoke specifically at Marta. She then had to think via Russian into Polish, to tell Kasia, who then spoke English to David and I. It was a four-language (quatrilingual?) conversation, and the Director hardly paused for anyone to catch up and respond. It lasted about 10 minutes. But I’m glad to say that half way through, the owner of the restaurant strode into the small room and stood like the Genie of the Lamp, legs apart, arms folded and moustache to boot, and told us (in Armenian, I presume) that this was the best restaurant in Yerevan, with the best food, that he was proud to welcome such esteemed guests, and that we could look forward to some real traditional Armenian specialities, so enjoy, thank you for coming to my restaurant and have a great meal. As you can imagine, this took some time, and was interspersed by fragments of the Director’s toast. In the background, behind the coat stand, the waiter clattered our empty plates around.
The Genie withdrew, the waiter clattered out of the room, and the Director finished his toast. And then, to everyone’s surprise, he left. He’d picked at a few morsels beforehand, drunk a sip of wine, been involved in as much conversation as Ewa and Borat as could draw him away from his cushions, and now he bade his farewells and left. As he edged round the back of us, he was heard to grunt to Borat that he couldn’t understand a word of what was going on and that he’d had enough. Both Ewa and Kasia caught this, knowing enough Armenian or the general language, and told us the next day. He was fed up, and had had enough of us and the evening.
The atmosphere changed. It was as if there were suddenly windows, and birds flew in. You could breathe again. Borat stayed, he was an amenable enough bloke, the Ambassador wasn’t going anywhere, and the meal continued in much better mood. If I’d known at the start that the Director was only going to stay 20 minutes I’d have been a lot happier, we all would. But he may have intended to stay the whole evening, as we expected, and just gone out on a stroppy whim.
The food was good though. I said earlier that my hopes for Armenia hadn’t been great, and that had certainly applied to this meal. I suppose, even at Yerevan’s self-proclaimed Best Place, proclaimed by a caliph of a proprietor, I expected kebabs and more dolma, or dalma, andbaklava to finish, with perhaps shots of local vodka to wash things away, sorry, down. But I was wrong.
When we arrived there were already several salads, including another tabbouleh, a couple of plates of three local cheeses (these were particularly good, different, and interesting), dishes of madzoon, the Armenian sour yoghurt – really nice actually -some cream cheese wrapped in tiny sliced aubergine and cucumber cylinders, and a spicy baba ganoush. This and the tabbouleh reconfirmed that there was a large borrowing of traditional north African cuisine, though the ganoush was much darker and hotter than the hummousy paste you often get in Lebanese restaurants. There were also oblong saucers of fresh herbs, tied together. At any point you could just pull off a leaf of parsley, basil, tarragon, coriander, sage too, I think, to complement whatever you were eating at the time; what a wonderful idea! Between every course I had a nibble on a tarragon leaf.
As the night before, everyone ordered a local wine, and I stuck to my British brass persona and asked for beer. All the proper glasses were on the table (water, wine, shot) and the wine itself (someone insisted I try a sip because it…) was excellent, really properly good. Who’d have thought, Armenian wine? Great though it was, I tried to catch the clattery waiter’s eye for more beer. After we’d eaten what was laid out, another course arrived, a tray of 8 large stuffed mushrooms. There were 9 of us. Somehow, it worked out that I was the one who went without. Fortunately, having no political tact, experience, or language other than inhibited English, I managed to make a meal of this, if that’s not a misnomer, and hopefully broke the ice a bit. Eventually, the clatterer came back with a single huge stuffed mushroom, and we could proceed. This was when the Director finally finished his toast, everyone triumphantly raised their glasses, but of course I was empty. You can’t drink a toast at an important meal with an empty glass. You can’t drink a toast anywhere with an empty glass. And after the stuffed mushroom palava, I was again the exposed party at the party. Unbelievably, The Man Himself rescued the situation, and via the mediums of total linguistic incomprehension and human nature, he took the bottle of wine and gestured towards my unused wine glass. He gave me a generous slug, and we all toasted his speech. Which was nice but whereupon, as I said earlier, he left, muttering.
Whereupon the sun came out in the room, and the main parts of the caliph’s feast began to arrive. With the variety of starters on the table when we arrived, then the mushrooms, in effect we’d had at least 4 courses so far, and next to clatter into the room were 2 trays of what Borat announced as Young Beef in Cognac and Red Wine Sauce. Blimey. The beef was so tender it was beautiful. Couldn’t really taste the sauce, though I’m sure I wasn’t doing it a favour by slugging beer.
After this we were all actually pretty full, and asked Marta in hope if this was the last course before a sweet course anyway. She said she thought Yes, thankfully it was, and we all breathed out a little, in preparation for a final little sweet, perhaps a delicate Armenian pomegranate segment, served with a drizzle of syrup. The waiter crashed in and placed the trays on the burners at each table. A beautiful row of lamb chops was not what we were expecting, any of us. They were small, and obviously delectable, but they weren’t pomegranate segments, and we all breathed in again. In a rich tomato and aubergine sauce, served with sliced roast potatoes, they were absolutely wonderful, tender, sweet and succulent, so good that most of them were eaten despite our stretched appetites. And then finally saucers of baked apple, with a palmful of chopped nuts and cinnamon thrown over them were brought out, fabulous. As in the west, here in the east everyone ordered coffees to finish their meal. Well, nearly everyone. Catching the waiter’s eye for the umpteenth time – to be fair to him he’d actually been extremely good, only clattered a couple of times, and by now knew just to bring me beer without his eye being inconvenienced in the slightest – I rounded off with my usual. This stage of large meals usually takes ages, but suddenly I realised that the coffees had gone and I had half a pint of Kinishki, or whatever it was called, left. After the Director’s toast (and other later toasts, much less formal and extended), the conversation had come round to national drinking habits. But the flow was ebbing, and I suddenly clocked that they were waiting for me. Seizing the moment, I downed my glass and said “that’s how an Englishman does it”. Unnecessary, I thought.
So we left, thanking all in sight for what had really been a spectacular meal. Several highlights, maybe the spicy baba ganoush, dark purple and reddened with paprika, or the tender baby lamb chops, but for me the thing that was so different was the idea of having a plate of herbs on the table at, to nibble at whenever you chose.
The Director having stropped off, and the amenable Ambassador having said his farewells outside the hotel, that left us friendly fivesome (the three Polish management, and us two tutors) going back to our hotel. But Borat was still in tow. Friendly enough though he was, he was still Herr Director’s assistant, or maybe even his eyes and ears, so I hatched a plan. With Ewa, we agreed that if he hung around with us when we got to the hotel, we’d all go to our rooms and that would be that. But if he – and I’m aware this sounds ungrateful, possibly rude, and inconsiderate to international relations – buggered off, then how did everyone feel about a quick drink if we could find a nearby bar? But more considerate to British/Polish relations, I’d really felt that the girls had looked after us so well, in paying for everything, that if I got a Yeravanian cashpoint to work, which I’d done earlier in the day, it was the least I could do to buy a few drinks.
And it worked out perfectly. Borat, bless him, had said Goodnight outside the Tulip, and gone home. We all still went into the hotel, to give him time to get a couple of blocks away. We all knew of The Plan by this time, it having been whispered along the pavement during the walk back to the hotel, but Marta said she was going to bed. She seemed a much less outgoing person than the other girls, so naturally she didn’t go out. She was no less business-like than them, just quieter.
The four of us, David, Ewa, Kasia and I, turned left downhill from the hotel, and within 5 minutes came to a junction. Not a leafy square as you’d find in Spain or Italy but a road junction. But it wasn’t busy, it was Friday night, there were more people than cars, and we sat at a table in a pavement bar, and I was pleased to order three Ararat brandies and my usual.
This hour went perfectly, in that we just had that one drink, we had a bit of relief time away from the heavies, and we went back to the hotel at a reasonable time, ready for the next batch of auditions the following day.
Now knowing the lay of the small patch of land between the hotel and the Academy, taxis were dispensed with the next day and we all made our own way on foot. As the auditions didn’t start till 11, and with no desire to get there early, to hang around the wooden, smoky (!) corridors, and the sad stony staircases, after breakfast I nipped into the souvenir shop by the hotel. This being a new country to me after all, it’d be nice to bring something back. The bell tinkled and I went down the steps (as I wondered before, is there anywhere that exists on ground level in Yerevan?) into a smallish room that extended out the back to a small conservatory, and then a wire-covered back garden, all displaying souvenirs. As I’d expected, I was immediately approached and then followed round the shop by a rather sweet old lady, who pointed at the things I was already looking at (thanks). But then occasionally she did explain a few facts about things: “hand-made”, “ a small family business” etc, which I was interested in. As a cynical westerner I was expecting all this, and first time round the shop, when I reached the back of it, didn’t even dare go outside to the garden/extension/murder area. Well it did look something to be wary of, milling with ‘tourists’ who slid their eyes across at me as soon as I looked like going out there. I took another turn round the shop as there were one or two items I was considering, including the sweet old lady, she seemed quite authentic (but how to get her home, are s.o.ls duty free? etc) and by the time I reached the back porch area, I could see that the wary-eyed ‘tourists’ had settled down at a large wooden table, and were playing cards, with a bottle of brandy between them, from which they refreshed themselves virtually every hand. This was 9.30 a.m.
I shouldn’t be so shocked. I knew about the khash ceremony; the French have pastis with their coffee for breakfast; Laurie Lee seemed to drink conac at every hour of the day during his travels in Spain in the 1930s. Different worlds.
Anyway, having been harried enough by the s.o.l., I though it time to start wandering up through the town to the Academy. A lovely morning, pretty hot already, and as always in a different world, fascinating to see and watch everything that was going on. It was only a short walk, but I walked along a busy road, where at the very least, the amazing Armenian language jumped out from every shop. Obviously I could see what was being sold, clothes, doughnuts, flowers, but the mere lettering on their signs was eyecatching. I came to a small park lake with sculptures and a piano and a giant guitar planted with grass, so they were green and growing. This was just before the vast grey Opera House. Someone had pointed this out the previous day, and a huge, striking building it is, but (and this may be confused by preconceptions and pictures of black and white Soviet life for most of the 20th Century) it did look pretty forbidding to me. Compare it to the Opera in Paris, a chandelier of a place with Chagall paintings in the roof. I didn’t go inside the Yerevan place, so that may be unfair. Or what about the beautiful Barcelona building…?
Rounding the grey Opera House, I came to an Artists Market, now here was something to investigate, and I had plenty of time, the Music Academy was just over there, or up there, somewhere close anyway. In a small garden, not quite a park, artists were painting, and had set up rows and rows of their work. I filed along the various avenues between their canvasses, the sun got warmer, and this was pretty nice.
Back to the main road, the way we’d walked back yesterday, I saw the Giovanni’s restaurant, and the bank opposite. It’s important to clock these things when you’re in a new place, and after so many years of doing it, it’s become a habit. The next street up the hill took me further than I was expecting, but I soon recognised a big, stern sculpture, leaning down on a stone table as if addressing a board meeting, and about to give bad news. I carried on sort of upwards, the town leant upwards at this point, and then didn’t recognise anything. That meant I’d gone too far. But at what point? Well, at this point, and with about 10 minutes to go before the auditions started, I realised that I couldn’t understand the street signs, and I didn’t have my schedule with the address of the Academy on it, to show to a taxi driver. There was a friendly-looking woman (friendly as in she had a baby in a pram, not friendly in the Hello Sailor kind of way. Yes this was now only 10.45 in the morning, but I’d already seen what the locals got up to at 9.30.), I could ask her where the… oh, no, of course I couldn’t, I can’t speak a single word of Armenian. I could blag “Dos cervesas por favor” at her, but unless she happened to have two beers on her, this wasn’t going to get me anywhere, certainly not nearer the Academy. Hmm.
I knew I was close, and doubled back, crossed the road, crossed my chest and hallelujah, I saw the road that led to the Academy. And dashed up to entrance just as Kasia and Ewa were (much more convincingly) strolling up from the opposite direction. Then through the doors, and back into the gloomy atmosphere of the World of The Director, and back to work.
There were a few wind players today, and after we’d got three violas out of the way, David and I swapped places and I assumed his previous role of main auditioner/candidate looker-after. And though Trombones is what I do, I know nothing about all other wind instruments, certainly not enough for me to sit and pretend to be an expert and a judge, I felt much more comfortable with flutes, oboes and French Horns than I had with any of the string players. I guess the blowing thing is a common bond after all; I can relate to the blowers and not to the scrapers.
As with yesterday, we both wanted to help the candidates as much as possible, at the same time as finding out if they could adapt to requests to play things in a slightly different way. More and more, with the help of Marta sitting in the front row as translator, I found myself going up onto the stage with the players and talking to them. By the last one, a struggling horn player at about half past 2, I was becoming determined not to get too involved, or it would become more like a lesson than an audition. But I was called to a halt by Kasia, who suddenly switched the camera off and started packing up. Oh well, that was that then, we’d finished our job and got through about 20 candidates in two days.
“Quick, we must go downstairs” insisted Kasia.
David and I were confused. “Why, what’s downstairs?”
“Last-minute percussion audition” said Ewa, taking the camera tripod and bustling off. Turned out there was a chap in the basement, in the dark percussion world, who wanted to play for us, to do a spontaneous audition. Well, not strictly spontaneous because he had applied to do one, and he had the excerpts, but I think he’d never indicated that he was going to be there that day. So down and down we went, following Ewa as she spiralled into the mines of the Academy. It felt like something from Lord of the Rings. Eventually we came out into another long, wide corridor, only this one felt like it had flaming torches on the walls. A few doors along we came to a smallish room on the left. A keen youth was in there practising, and we hastily set up our stall, David and I perching on primary-school-size chairs behind a little plastic table, Kasia setting up the camera a few feet in front of us, trained on the youth, only a couple of feet in front of her. No windows, a small echoey room; this was going to be loud.
After some initial confusion as to what instruments he had available (“Timps? “No.” “Glockenspiel?” “No.” “Xylophone?”…) we eventually settled on Bolero as his first excerpt, on the snare drum. Well. I’ve done some strange things in a music career and sitting in a dark room in Armenia, having dashed there, and now listening with all seriousness to a percussion audition is right up there. And what a choice of piece. Why did nobody else see what was about to happen? Bolero is famous for many reasons; in the musicians world it’s well-known for the snare drum part, which starts the piece with a rhythm, and then keeps going with that same bar over and over for about 12 minutes. He didn’t even start quietly. Certainly not the distant spooky tap that the piece requires. OK, a distant spooky tap was impossible in a room that size, but I can’t say he even tried. So off he went with that famous rhythm. After about 30 seconds he looked up while playing, and stared directly at David for the next minute or so. Without even looking to see, I knew why: David had his fingers in his ears. The drummer looked amazed, and quite offended. Unprotected, I tried to look as if I was on the drummer’s side, and that he should carry on despite my colleague’s insensitivity, and that I was also an expert percussion-auditioner, having done this many times before. After this long minute, the youth lowered his gaze and carried on, getting louder. Kasia, almost within touching distance of the drum, was looking pretty flustered and virtually gestured Help! To Ewa. After what felt like 400 bars of this, but was probably only about 50, I turned to David and yelled “We have to stop this!”. So with shouts and gestures, we brought this performance of Bolero to an end. One of the most ridiculous situations I’ve ever been in, pure comedy. Kasia didn’t think much of it though, and looked stressed. And it didn’t get any better, as it turned out the snare drum was just about the only instrument he had, and he was pretty unprepared on that. So things sort of closed down, and we packed up and left.
One more thing to do though, before we could finally leave this dungeon of a music school. We had to visit the dragon. Throughout the auditions upstairs there had been the ever-present possibility of The Director coming to join us again. But he hadn’t. He’d sent his stooge, Borat to us though, with the inviting news that we should go to The Directors office once more, as he was insisting on saying goodbye. This insistence was of a kind I’d not experienced before. Though Borat was polite enough, given the situation it was virtually an order. For a split second I got a tiny glimpse of what the word oppression could mean.
So after the extraordinary runaround since the horn audition, then the un-nerving ear-bashing in the percussion labyrinth, we trudged back upstairs fairly heavy-hearted, and were ushered once more into his study. This time, when he offered cognac, Borat sensed our reluctance and said “It is advisable”. So we had the cognac. We’d finished work, after all, but even so, when the right-hand man of an important Armenian official with hammers in his eyes says that drinking the cognac is “advisable”, you drink the damn cognac. The Director started on one of his long toasts again, again not waiting for Borat to catch up in translation. I think it was along the same lines as before, that ‘we hope that you will take many of our students and that you find the standard good’ and so on. Ewa responded with a succinct toast ‘to partnerships’, some pregnant pauses that had been there yesterday returned, but soon, somehow, probably due to Ewa’s statesmanship, we managed to wriggle out of the door. And out to a much-looked-forward-to lunch.
The relief sharpened everyone’s appetites, and we went to a nearby local place, down a flight of stairs (yawn). Everyone was in a good mood now, we discussed a few things, including the incredible impact of The Director. Ewa, understanding one more language than David and I, revealed that she’d definitely been treated better by him today, and that she reckoned he’d made a few phone calls and decided that we/she/the ICO project was something he should be a bit more attentive to. I hadn’t picked that up but it was interesting. So I can’t ultimately cast him as the dangerous figure he appeared; there was a business side to him that was prepared to tow the line a little.
Pretty soon we realised that the food we’d ordered was even better than the previous night, whatever the caliph/owner or anyone says. Some thin, fried aubergine slices, accompanied by the madzoon disappeared almost immediately, and we ordered another batch. Same with some light crispy pancakes like delicate samosas. There was a word on the menu, gyalagyosh, and David asked the waiter if this was goulash. The waiter said no, and proceeded to describe a traditional Armenian peasant dish. When he’d finished, we all ordered it.
First to arrive were two saucers, one of crushed fresh garlic, one of finely milled black pepper. Then we were all given a small pot of lentils and beef, a gorgeous meaty stew. Then some baskets of dried lavash arrived, looking like bashed-up poppodums. Finally, each of us were brought a bowl of what looked like hot milk, and went through the same ceremony. When it was my turn, I asked if it was hot milk. “No, is yoghurt” he replied. Presumably the madzoon again, heated till it was much thinner. Into this he tipped half the pepper and half the garlic, and stirred the mixture round. Then in went the lentil stew, and that was folded in. Lastly the waiter threw a handful of the dried lavash bread in, and pushed it down into the dish, so it soaked up all the meaty, garlicky flavour. And that was that. I forget what it cost on the menu in Armenian drams, I would guess the equivalent of about £12, but it obviously cost pennies to make, and was absolutely terrific. Lentils, pennies; there were only very small pieces of beef in the lentils, to flavour them like bacon dice; garlic and black pepper, pennies; and bread is bread. So full of favourite flavours. Pretty soon, it became a soggy mess and pretty heavy, and despite everything going for it, I couldn’t quite finish it. Best dish of the trip though, by miles.
The girls had to go to the Opera House to meet some people there, David went off to visit a monastery, I was on a high. We’d finished work, I was never going to have to meet The Director again, and with his cognac and the several beers I’d had with that fabulous lunch, the sun was shining just about everywhere. I wandered slowly round a few souvenir shops, having failed to purchase the sweet old lady earlier in the day, then went back to last night’s pavement bar to consider what to buy. Most immediately, I bought a beer, and sat and watched the world for half an hour or so. Then I went back to one of the shops, now knowing what I wanted, bought it, and returned to my seat at the pavement bar. This shop had been the most helpful one, and the girl had explained to me the significance of what appeared to be an Armenian national symbol, the pomegranate. As well as being in many Armenian recipes, it has been adopted to represent the nation itself, and the many seeds inside are the people. No, I didn’t just buy a pomegranate. I bought a lovely picture made entirely from flower petals, of a pomegranate tree being watched by a brightly-coloured bird (which represents good luck).A symbol of a deer with enormous antlers also cropped up a lot, from some local cave paintings somewhere, but I just added a couple of small baubles and left. Back at the bar with my bag of buys, I had another slow lazy beer, this time chased by an Ararat brandy. In the early evening sun, this all felt pretty relaxed.
The late lunch and slow afternoon meant that by this time I could just drift up the road to the Tulip and meet everyone for dinner. Where to go for that was a quick and unanimous decision: back to the lunch place. Though none of us (and again it was just the four of us) could manage the gyalagyosh again, indeed, we were all still full of it, the other bits and bobs had easily been good enough for us to return for a light last supper. When we went in it was busy, and other than reserved tables, there was only one space left, the table next to the band. Well, the singer. The band behind him was just about subtle enough for the room, but the tenor raised the roof at the top of the building several storeys above. He gestured as he sang, with gusto, his arms proclamatory, reaching out to everyone in the room. It was like, oh I don’t know, like sitting in a small subterranean cubby hole listening to a snare drum player playing Bolero. But here, I wondered if the soloist was famous, he was certainly assured enough for people to come long distances to hear him. No wonder several tables were reserved.
We ordered much the same as before, the pancakes and aubergine slivers, and as before, repeated the order, but without following these with the huge garlic stew. The singer and band did take breaks, and then we could hear ourselves talk, and we adopted the Armenian tradition of many toasts. I can see it’s a convivial tradition in friendly circumstances, and these were those. In more formal settings, they had been things to be very wary of, but tonight was the end of a long fortnight for the two Polish girls, and a brief jump into new territory for David and I, and so we had a couple of rounds of friendly toasts. Toasting leads to drinking, which leads to the loo, and tonight I was the first to ask the waiter where they were. From our table next to the stage, they were straight past the band then up some stairs. During a band break I followed his directions and came back down. But the band had started again, and to cross directly in front of them would, I thought, be a bit disrespectful. Like walking across someone’s line on a putting green, you really shouldn’t do it, it’s all wrong. So I stayed under the low arch by the other side of the stage until their song had finished, then came back to the table. And this happened to all of us, when we returned from the loo, we all waited until the music had stopped before returning to our seats. Having learnt early on that Ewa and Kasia were both ex-cellists, and seeing their equally horrified reaction to The Director’s table-tapping, in Giovanni’s I’d pronounced that they were both more musicians than management. A hasty idea. But as they both took their turn crouching under the awning, waiting for a song to finish before returning to the table, I felt justified in that comment. Experience tells me I’m being naïve and wrong, but at that moment it felt naïve and right.
Despite the utterly dominating singer, the evening was a gentle finale to a unique few days. How lucky of me to be able to write the word unique after so many years on similar tracks. My own toast ended by repeating the one that David had made at lunch, when he said “I’ve never been better looked after”. The two girls and their hospitality, and the general respectful working attitude had been something I’d never come across before. I know I’ve earned it, but I would never have expected it.
In Yerevan, there’d seemed to be a few twists and turns, highs and lows, and now there was another punchline. We were preparing to leave, and other tables were also fumbling with hats and coats, I’d watched the musicians starting to put their instruments away, me half trying to work out what instruments they were; the place was closing, and the singer strode up to us.
Addressing Ewa, he boomed “I have heard you that you are important in music to here”. People stopped fumbling with their coats. “I will sing one more song for you!”.
So the band hastily re-assembled itself, and lo and behold this tremendous tenor sang a last huge tragic aria, still proclaiming to the room, but mostly at our table. It was stupendous. I don’t know what had happened, but I’ve never been treated like this.
After the song he bowed, and that was the end of the evening for everyone. What had happened? Had the long brown-suited arm of the Director reached as far as this singer? Who was this singer? Was it possible that the Armenian infrastructure lurked here too? Or that the Director’s contacts in the underworld had had a word backstage?
I suspect, and half hope, that the singer had noticed that while all the other tables had carried on talking during his performances, we’d shut up and listened attentively. He was so gripping you could hardly do otherwise. That either he or the band members (there were about 5 of them) had noticed our interest. Or even that all of our table members had refused to cross in front of him while he was singing. All the other punters had simply marched across in front of the stage. We had no idea, and these were the theories suggested as we walked through the streets back to the hotel.
I said I half hoped these were true. I equally half hope that the long arm theory was true: that the Powers That Be had contacted the singer (it’s very likely they all knew each other) and that he and his group had done a special extra turn for us.
I wholly hope that neither theory is right, and I’ve really no reason or inclination to believe either.
Though Ewa did look a little self-satisfied as we left the restaurant. Hmm.
After the short walk back through the streets, at about 1 a.m. now, it was time to say goodbye. Amazing how two days like this can seem like a lifetime, but then I’ve always thought that about travel. Marta miraculously appeared when we arrived at the Tulip, and we all hugged after an amazing few days in a new place. Time to go to bed, and David and I got into the lift to our rooms. Not so the girls. As we ascended in the glass lift, I looked down and we could see all three of them round a table in the foyer with their clipboards; they were having a meeting! These guys never stop. And I knew their flight back to Poland meant they had to get up at 3.30. They were SO impressive.
A lazy couple of hours later, David and I met down at Reception at 5.30. 2.30a.m. GMT but flying west is easier than east so today would keep shortening. At Yerevan Airport(a place that 6 weeks ago I’d have wondered why they named it after a conductor), waiting for the plane at 5a.m. it was beautifully clear, and if you ignored the tarmac, there was a stunning view of Mount Ararat, crystalline in the blue morning sky, and looking like Mount Fuji with a bit lopped off. I took several pictures, and one hasty one of the Men sign at the loo, bought some of the Ararat brandy that we’d seen in various places and been forced on us in others, and got on the plane.
Soon out over the barren brown mountains again, I still felt as if I was on the Indiana Jones flight map, though this time the adventure was done. Though it had been an adventure, in a new place and therefore with new experiences. Sometimes it had been ugly, and stressful. Some really difficult stuff that I’d never come across before. With the ICO, there may be more ugly stuff ahead, in fact I’m sure there will be, so Yerevan will be a taster of that side of the world and its approach to music. But music’s the baseline, so let’s take it from there.
PS Travel and life time etc, musos live longer etc, extra day etc birthday March 5th, stewardesses etc..? Also time away seems twice as long…