By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
BERLIN, JUNE 17, 2021 – In 1988, after massive earthquakes struck Armenia, leaving behind a trail of death, injuries, crumbled buildings and shattered lives. “That December,” Ambassador Ashot Smbatyan would later recall, “many came to our aid, from all over the world. But the help that came from the Suhl concert moved me in a special way.”
The Armenian diplomat in Berlin was referring, 30 years later, to a concert of the Boys Choir from the Thuringian city of Suhl. German television had broadcast the news of the horrendous earthquake, with dramatic footage of the devastation it had caused. Then-choir director Hubert Voigt, on learning of the natural catastrophe, had gone to Pastor Hans Michael and asked if he could organize a benefit concert on short notice. At the time, in East Germany before reunification, it was forbidden to hold concerts in the Hauptkirche St. Marien, the main church in the city. Nonetheless, the pastor spoke to Bishop Christoph Demke in Magdeburg, who relayed the request to the State Secretary for Church Affairs in Berlin, and eventually permission was granted. Invitations went out, posters (made by the pastor and his wife) appeared in the city, and the event took place just ten days after the earthquake. On December 17, 1988 a thousand people (more than the pews could accommodate) gathered for a concert where the Suhl Boys’ Choir, as well as the Suhl Horn Quartet, presented a program of Christmas music. Between tickets and donations, the concert raised the remarkable sum of twelve thousand marks. The funds were immediately transferred the following Monday to a solidarity committee bank account, earmarked “Caucasus” for immediate relief. Voigt did not emerge from the initiative unscathed; he faced disciplinary measures, and no further concerts were allowed. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, just one year later, that the churches opened up officially for music, and the boys’ choir could sing freely, there and elsewhere.
Three decades later in 2018, the Ars Musica choir performed an Advent concert in the Suhl Kreuzkirche under the direction of Maik Gruchenberg. Ars Musica was officially founded in 1994, its original members were men who grew up in the Suhl boys’ choir, and it expanded to 60 singers, all with musical experience as youngsters. It was on this occasion on December 23, 2018 that Ambassador Smbatyan, one among 1000 guests, made his remarks. He expressed his special appreciation of the Armenian pieces that the choir included in its program. “In my entire diplomatic career, I have never experienced a choir singing Christmas music from my homeland,” he said, adding praise for the singers’ excellent Armenian pronunciation. The 4800 Euro raised at this concert, enhanced by the choir members to 5300 Euro, arrived soon thereafter in Litsck, where the secondary school was in urgent need of renovation. The H. Tumanyan middle school, built back in 1918, provides education for a thousand children from the Gegharkunik region, including German language courses. Thorsten Weiss, chairman of Ars Musica, delivered the funds personally in April 2019, and soon thereafter the auditorium had freshly painted walls, a parquet floor, a fully renovated stage and modern seats for future audiences.
Now, Ars Musica is planning another concert tour in Armenia. As chairman of the Thuringian men’s choir and Rotarian from Erfurt, Weiss is organizing the initiative in cooperation with the German Embassy in Yerevan and Ambassador Smbatyan in Berlin. Alexan Ter-Minasyan, who is Honorary German Consul in Gyumri and very active in the cultural life of the region, is actively supporting the effort.
To launch the tour, Ars Musica will perform on July 18 in the German city of Halle, which has a partnership with Gyumri. Gyumri will host a concert on August 22, and diplomats as well as local political leaders plan to attend both events. Other concerts will take place at the small monastery in Tatev, on August 17, and two days later in Garni and the Geghard monastery. They will perform in Yerevan on August 20 and 28, the latter concert in the Komitas Museum. On August 21, they will sing in Echmiadzin, on the occasion of the 70th birthday of Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II Nersissian. And on August 27, they will be in Litschk, to inaugurate the newly renovated auditorium at the Tumanyan school.