Pegasus: The Orchestra – Cultural Incubator of Community

Pegasus, the winged divine stallion of Greek mythology, friend of the muses bringing lighting and thunder from Olympus to the people, perfectly embodies the orchestra’s broad aspirations: “As musicians and artists we dream of achieving new heights and letting our imagination take flight,” says Pegasus founder, pianist and composer Karén Hakobyan: “We as humans have always dreamt of defying gravity. Music does just that – it gives us wings.” Hakobyan passionately embraces his new role as artistic director of the recently launched orchestral ensemble with the emblematic name. (Photo credit: Ohad Ashkenazi, Pegasus at Mana, location Mana Contemporary)

The position marks the next organic step in Hakobyan’s personal evolution as a musician. “I have written orchestral scores from a very young age,” he says, “and [I] chose my instrument, the piano, thanks to its polyphonic qualities, mimicking the varying orchestral sounds.” This fascination also led him to delve into conducting, training with the MET’s own John Keenan. Next month, Hakobyan will have the chance to prove himself as Pegasus’ principal conductor, but in our conversation Hakobyan favored discussing aspects of his broader vision for the ensemble and its personnel: “The orchestra’s members all have very active careers as soloists and chamber musicians, [and] many of them also freelance with top orchestras in the region. What makes our collaboration especially fertile is that it forms a platform for our members to carry over their own, personal projects, letting them grow as individuals as well as profiting the ensemble.” He remarks,  “Pegasus’ format is flexible – the orchestra can mean so many things; the main goal is to let its members shine in a bold and individualistic way, uncommon to the typical orchestral environment.” The orchestra’s debut concert will take place October 13, 2017, at the DiMenna Center For Classical Music, and will feature works by Hakobyan, Komitas, Debussy and Mendelssohn.

While Pegasus plans to execute larger collective performances at times, its current full size of thirty-five core members strong– certainly presents some disadvantages, especially for concert availability and touring logistics. In performance, Pegasus will range in size from string quintet to large chamber ensemble at times within the same concert, allowing for diverse presentations and programs, every so often challenging the customary orchestral format. In March 2018, the Leonard Bernstein centennial, their program, ‘Americana,’ will feature unusual transcriptions for eighteen instruments of West Side Story, as well as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Different instruments will be showcased in interesting ways, allowing for more solo performances than usual from each of the ensemble members. Some performances will take place without a conductor and change the pace with large orchestral works, allowing audiences to “clear their aural and visual palette.”

A growing shortage of engagements for full-time orchestral musicians over the last decade combined with the enhanced elasticity of ensembles with flexible size has brought about a number of similar entrepreneurial initiatives throughout the ever-changing music scene and proven successful by other teams like The Knights and Metropolis Ensemble. Challenging musical goals of large orchestras, such as performing with a unified sound, the characteristic of their specific orchestral tradition and similar objectives may have changed significance in light of opportunities to overcome restrictive barriers. Thanks to the large talent pool of their collaborative that allows for a multitude of productions in varying configurations on a standby budget, this flexible orchestral model has led to productive results both financially and artistically; it seems not being confined to and defined by “one’s designated seat,” may result in more original and sensitive musicianship, and interacting in varied group and program settings may lead to more numerous and diverse rehearsals that ultimately develop each musician’s own artistic voice more vigorously.

Beyond their joint musicianship, Pegasus’ members distinguish themselves through their widely diverse heritage, representing a cultural element of international appeal. The ensemble somewhat resembles a musical UN assembly, each performer representing his or her own legacy. Hakobyan’s Armenian-American background, for example, has taught him the significance and benefit of communal loyalty. But more than winning supportive patrons (the orchestral debut concert is sponsored by the charitable Armenia Fund, USA) it is the prospect of collaborating with different communities, building social ties and connecting people through overarching programs – the infinite pool of possibilities – that really motivates him.

Perhaps it is this shared passion to eliminate boundaries between artistic creativity and communal stimulation that brought Hakobyan the special opportunity of collaborating with Mana Contemporary, the rapidly expanding visionary arts complex in Jersey City. An offshoot of Moishe Mana’s moving and storage emporium, the locality developed through the influx of gallery and museum clients, who were interested in utilizing gallery space to show part of their stored collections and avoid costly transportation and upkeep of their work. In 2011, Mana’s vision to develop the huge cluster of warehouse and factory buildings into a communal platform for artists and the performing arts was realized with Mana Contemporary, which was soon followed by Mana Contemporary Chicago (2013) and Mana Miami (2015).

With their debut music series branded ‘Pegasus at Mana,’ Pegasus establishes Mana’s very first music residency.  It will contain four piano and four orchestral performances. On September 28th, Hakobyan will be joined in performance by pianist Nadeja Vlaeva, the new co-director of the Pegasus piano series, in their shared debut concert at Mana. “Mana, our new home, is a one-of-a-kind venue where different types of art live under one roof in a symbiotic relationship. Such an environment is inspirational and stimulates creativity,” says Vlaeva. Hakobyan’s orchestral program series will follow with its debut performance at Mana on October 21st.

The partnership between Mana and Pegasus was engineered by Louis Meisel, Manhattan art dealer and music lover, who has been presenting young musicians in his Soho Loft and Gallery and beyond for the past two decades, among them Vlaeva and Hakobyan.  

As an active board member of a slew of performing arts institutions, among them Concert Artist Guild, Youth America Grand Prix and the Miami-based New World Symphony, Lou sees himself as a facilitator for the artists and cultural initiatives he engages with: “I help promote and make introductions,” he says, describing the dynamic process of his beneficial networking skills. “Mana’s complex is just mind-boggling. It occupies almost a million square feet. Each floor is about an acre, about 100 artists rent studio galleries, which are visually accessible to the public through giant glass doors. There are art supply stores, frame shops and even a foundry and restaurant, to meet and explore common ideas. There are also three major dance troupes, and then the architectural museum…”

(Photo-montage with Photo Grid by Ilona Oltuski, location Mana contemporary)

There is no doubt the venue is buzzing with great potential to showcase performances and exhibitions, and thanks to the literal transparency of its architecture, the structure is designed for viewers to attend rehearsals and experience educational outreach firsthand. Some of the studios are indeed equipped with glass fronts, turning public into an audience, which can entail a voyeuristic ‘peeking behind the scenes’ experience, with passers-by able to watch the artist at work (artists’ consent permitting). For onlookers, getting pulled into the creative process can also make for a unique rapport with the artist and his work. Viewers can relate to art not only as the finished product on display, but rather to the work in progress, and this process stimulates intimacy and engages interest.  

(Photo credit: Ohad Ashkenazi, members of Pegasus with Yigal Ozeri, center, location: Mana Contemporary)“I represent the work of Yigal Ozeri, an excellent artist, at my gallery. Together with Moishe Mana and Eugene Lemay, Mana’s chief executive and CEO, Ozeri is one of the three leading men at Mana,” Meisel says. “Five years ago I said to him, ‘so with all the great visual art and dance that’s developing at Mana, what about music?’ About six months later the concert hall was built! This is how they work at Mana. That area did not have any concert hall of that size, accommodating 250 to 300. There was nothing in the community. Two years ago we started talking about a residency music program, and then three months ago, it happened.” There appears to be a remarkable amount of investment in Mana as a developing music venue. According to Meisel, the concert grand piano for the Pegasus at Mana 2017/18 series is entirely sponsored by Yamaha. He says, “Pegasus’ residency will encourage others to reach out and create more events.”

(Photo credit: Ohad Ashkenazi, Eugene Lemay with musicians of the orchestra, location: Mana Contemporary)

Mana’s community network has grown into a potent mailing list, and with its convenient and complementary parking conditions, new PATH stations and shuttle service from Manhattan, Mana will reach a larger and larger audience willing to cross the state line. It is the community aspect, though, that is at the core of Mana’s investment and vision. As with Pegasus’ own mission, the space is based on the artist as society’s stimulus. Committed to building a unique platform for music at Mana, Pegasus hopes to foster a creative environment for musicians and provide educational opportunities for local communities. With support from Mana, in their 2018 season Pegasus will expand their programs to incorporate Jazz, Chamber Music, and even a Youth and Outreach series.

By Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical.org