Concert Review: INVOCATIONS (Serj Tankian at The Soraya, Cal State Northridge)

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by William C. on May 1, 2023

in Concerts / Events,Theater-Los Angeles


Serj Tankian, a world-class musician, peace activist, and frontman of Grammy-winning nu-metal band System of Down, had the mixed crowd — metal T-shirts, ripped jeans, and dress-up — buzzing with excitement. Tankian is also an alumnus of Cal State University, Northridge, the home of The Soraya. The homecoming last Saturday April 29 included the CSUN Symphony conducted by Dr. John Roscigno, The Northridge Singers, additional solo vocalists, and Armenian instrumentalists. Invocations, Tankian’s new suite of compositions, had every hallmark of an epic experience.

(Vocalists L to R) Charles Elliott, Francesca Genco,
Serj Tankian, Brian Thorsett, Azam Ali

Ever a playful creator and true to his cross-cultural heritage, Tankian brought together vocals of Armenian origin, metal, experimental, operatic, and his own unique, versatile style. Opening with a cinematic score, pianist Lana Drincic set the tempo and mood with amazing arpeggios; gradually, the chord changes were accentuated with a full orchestra and choir acting as synth pads, filling in the acoustic space for a solo vocalist to soar over. What is particularly interesting is that the voices don’t need to blend comfortably together, at least not in the traditional sense — when the five lead vocalists sang in both unison and harmony, we got a raw, very primal quality.

Serj Tankian and Brian Thorsett

In Der Voghormia, a composition to commemorate the Armenian genocide, Azam Ali’s voice blended gorgeously with Jivan Gasparyan Jr.’s duduk playing. Ali’s voice was haunting and truly helped to set “the ritual” that Tankian had set out to create. In Aurora’s Dream, where Tankian’s and Ali’s duet weaved in and out like an acoustic tapestry, their voices matched in both energy and timbre. Brian Thorsett’s operatic powerhouse voice filled the hall in French and Armenian. At the same time, female soprano Francesca Genco had a very playful approach, often creating incredible sounds with her voice. And Charles Elliot, lead singer of the band Abysmal Dawn, rocked the stage with his metal vocals.

Serj Tankian with Francesca Genco (clapping) and Charles Elliott at left

I wanted to love the concert, but didn’t. Overall, the evening felt very long. And since all the pieces had similar timbral quality and arrangements, Invocations failed to capture much of my attention after a third of the way in. With our lead vocalist deep in solo mode the entire time — and not really much of a feature for the orchestra and choir — the concert felt borderline self-indulgent, even as the message of the music was very sincere and earnest. While technically the performances were executed wonderfully with a ton of heart, the monotonic pace and content was too much. This was really unfortunate because the stage was filled with fantastic musicians. I was particularly impressed by first cellist Alec Glass, whose playing was passionate and steady. Roscigno’s conducting was precise and clear, and The Northridge Singers — demonstrating good technique and craft — blended well together.

Conductor Dr. John Roscigno

I sincerely do hope this collaboration will continue between the University and Tankian. Regardless of the result, this concert was a generous act of bringing various people together — not just a metalhead sitting next to a university president, but student musicians playing alongside world-class musicians, an experience that could expand their musical mind to think outside their comfort zone. Next time, a little less focus on the message and more focus on the art.

(L to R) Dr. Katherine Baker (Director of the Northridge Singers),
Pianist Lana Drincic, Francesca Genco, Charles Elliott, Serj Tankian,
Dr. John Roscigno (Conductor and Music Director), Brian Thorsett, Azam Ali

photos by Luis Luque, Luque Photography

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