VEM Ensemble’s International Tour

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The VEM Ensemble has just completed its week-long tour of Armenia. Next up is “Resonances: The Music of Armenia” at the Hammer Museum on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 at 7:30 p.m.

The VEM Ensemble of the UCLA Armenian Music Program has just returned from its March 2023 tour of Armenia. The tour included ten workshops and outreach performances during a residency in the city of Dilijan and three formal concerts.

“It was an incredibly moving week of music,” said Movses Pogossian, artistic director of the VEM ensemble. “We were thrilled to have such wonderful audiences and to learn from fellow musicians.

VEM Quartet performing in Gyumri, Armenia. From left to right: Movses Pogossian, Ela Kodžas, Niall Tarō Ferguson, and Damon Zavala

The VEM String Quartet consists of Pogossian and master’s student Ela Kodžas on violin, master’s student Damon Zavala on viola, and UCLA alumnus Niall Tarō Ferguson on cello.

The formal concerts took place in Dilijan, Gyumri, and Yerevan. The program varied from eighth century plainchant by Khosrovidukht, one of the earliest documented, and perhaps the first, Armenian women to compose music and write poetry, to a contemporary collaboration with Armen Hyusnunts, famed soprano saxophonist and leader of the Armenian State Jazz Orchestra.

VEM Trio on stage in Yerevan

“Everywhere we performed, the audiences welcomed us with so much enthusiasm for what we were doing, which created the most special concert atmosphere I’ve personally yet experienced, said Damon Zavala, violist. “Despite the language barrier, the warmth and support of the Armenian audiences at our performances was visceral and I know we left each concert venue with our cups overflowing with emotion at the end of the night.”

The concerts inspired passionate reactions from audiences.

“During our final concert, in Yerevan, I heard an unusual sound behind me,” said Pogossian. “I’ll admit I was a little annoyed, because VEM alumna Danielle Segen was singing the Horzham, the ancient Armenian sharakan, from the balcony. She sounded heavenly, and I didn’t want to be distracted.” But any irritation Pogossian felt evaporated when he turned his head and saw a young woman sobbing uncontrollably.

“She was having a powerful reaction to the spiritual impact of that holy music,” said Pogossian. “I think we all were having our own personal reactions. It was beyond words.”

The VEM Ensemble with students at United World College Dilijan in Armenia

The VEM ensemble also conducted workshops for students at United World College (UWC) Dilijan, and also connected with the larger community of Dilijan thanks to a partnership with the Dilijan Community Center. Workshops for instrumentalists helped to hone skills and build relationships. Faculty and students have both requested that VEM return next year.

During the stay in Yerevan, members of the VEM Ensemble had the honor of receiving a personal coaching from world-renowned composer, Tigran Mansurian. 

The VEM Trio in the home of Tigran Mansurian (second from left).

“The experience of playing [Mansurian’s] music for him in his own home, and then learning firsthand how he approaches music making and the compositional process was a hugely inimitable encounter that really allowed our relationship with his trio to further blossom”, said VEM violinist, Ela Kodžas.

The VEM Ensemble returned to UCLA and is scheduled to perform at the Hammer Museum on April 19. The concert, “Resonances,” will commemorate the Armenian Holocaust. The VEM Ensemble will be joined by the Lernazang Ensemble (Լեռնազանգ Համույթ), UCLA’s Armenian Music Program’s newest ensemble in residence. They will perform Armenian folk medleys featuring acclaimed folk singer Hasmik Harutyunyan. The concert is under the artistic leadership of associate director of Armenian Music Program, Melissa Bilal.

The VEM Ensemble and Mt. Ararat

For the VEM Ensemble, it was a trip to remember.

“Performing Armenian music for Armenian audiences has completely changed the way I approach this music,” said cellist Niall Tarō Ferguson. “Having spent this time immersed in the Armenian culture, I’ve really come to appreciate the history of this country and its people, and the way it is portrayed in the music we perform.”

Taking time to zipline outside of Hagartsin