Khojaly 613 – a Guernica for our times

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The outstanding tone poem 'Khojaly 613' by Pierre Thilloy has been performed by the Paris-based Nomad Symphony Orchestra at the neo-Gothic Uranienborg Church in Oslo. The concert was organised within the UN-mandated International Decade for People of African Descent; the French office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS); the Oslo-based Centre for African Culture (CAK); and the Institut français de Norvège as part of a Francophone festival.

It is particularly important for Francophone nations to speak of the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict as France is one of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, and I felt I could say something with the music.

The evocative and nightmarish work Khojaly 613 brought down the curtain at a concert on 5 March. Performed as part of the Frankofonifestivalen 2016 festival – aimed at bringing Norway and Francophone nations together through cultural exchange and business connections – the work was performed as part of a concert to commemorate the musical legacy of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George (1745–99). He was the first Afro-French composer and orchestra leader, generally acknowledged as the first classical composer of African ancestry. This was organised within the UN-mandated International Decade for People of African Descent; the French office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS); the Oslo-based Centre for African Culture (CAK); and the Institut français de Norvège.

The concert began with a transcription for clarinet soloist, and baroque orchestra – including a harpsichord – of Saint-George’s Concerto Op.7, No.2, realised by Pierre Thilloy, who is currently artist-in-residence for the French Embassy in Norway and also artistic director of the Nomad Symphony Orchestra. This was followed by two Norwegian pieces, namely the dramatic Autumn Arias by the experimental Oslo-born composer Synne Skouen – present in the audience – and some of the incidental music by Johan Halvorsen (1864–1935) for the naturalistic play Gurre.

Previously, Pierre Thilloy twice held the position of artist-in-residence for the French Embassy in Azerbaijan, and during that time he became aware of the Khojaly Massacre, the worst single atrocity of the unresolved Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. This claimed the lives of 613 civilians on 26 February 1992, including 106 women, 63 children and 70 elderly people. This led him to be commissioned by TEAS to write a commemorative piece entitled Khojaly 613, which was subsequently shortlisted for the Victoires de la Musique Classique awards. The performance featured violinist Sabina Rakcheyeva, the first Azerbaijani graduate of the Juilliard School in New York and Cultural Advisor, TEAS.

Pierre Thilloy commented: “Culture cannot exist unless it represents the problems in the world. I feel it is my responsibility to speak about subjects that may not be familiar to everyone. It is particularly important for Francophone nations to speak of the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict as France is one of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, and I felt I could say something with the music.

“In addition, Khojaly 613 is now a piece of my repertoire – it is important to not only play it at the time of mourning on 25–26 February – the work can be played at any time. I regard it in the same way as Picasso’s Guernica, which is emblematic of the Spanish Civil War and the horrors of Fascism. The destruction of the town of Guernica would be forgotten if it were not for Picasso’s work. I want everyone to similarly become aware of Khojaly.

“I felt it was important to perform the piece in a church in Oslo. There are many commonalities between Azerbaijan and Norway. Both are small countries, with hydrocarbons resources, and explorer Thor Heyerdahl even theorised that the petroglyph painters in Gobustan had travelled from Norway.”

The audience received this devastating work in rapt, stunned silence, and they then demonstrated their appreciation with a standing ovation.

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