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North Texas organist celebrates Azerbaijani composer in concert

Profile image for Lucinda Breeding
Lucinda Breeding

Organist and educator Jamila Javadova-Spitzberg wants to celebrate a birthday. 

On Feb. 5, late composer Gara Garayev turns 100. The Azerbaijani composer rose to international prominence in 1961 when he and Tihkon Khrennikov were the only two Soviet composers to attend the first International Los Angeles Music Festival.

Javadova-Spitzberg, herself a native of Garayev's Baku, Azerbaijan, said the composer — who died in 1982 — deserves more exposure in the West. She's planned a concert of Garayev's work, "Gara Garayev at 100," at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12 at Voertman Hall inside the University of North Texas College of Music, 415 Ave. C. 

"Garayev's harmonic language is striking," Javadova-Spitzberg said. "When he composed for piano, the layers are very harmonic. He used so many elements — Azerbaijan folk tunes, and the 12-tone technique. But what's important is that he expressed so much through his music — love, struggle, dreaming and reality."

The concert will feature some of Garayev's piano preludes, selections from two of his ballets, two movements from his Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Minor and other selections. 

Javadova-Spitzberg said in spite of its history as a part of the Soviet Union, her native Azerbaijan has a cosmopolitan history and rich musical traditions that Garayev promoted even when constrained by Soviet sensibilities. 

"What connects America and Azerbaijan is, believe it or not, jazz," she said. "People couldn't express themselves musically without being persecuted. But after coming to America, Garayev had new inspiration."

Garayev was a student and friend of Dmitri Shostakovich. In 1962 — the year after Garayev represented his country at the Los Angeles festival, American composer Samuel Barber traveled to the Soviet Union and began a dialog with Shostakovich, Garayev and other Soviet composers. 

"Garayev incorporated jazz into his piano preludes," Javadova-Spitzberg said. "There is a folk music art form called mugham that is improvisational, and Garayev was able to use both that influence and jazz in his piano compositions."

Javadova-Spitzberg said she sees a sophisticated meeting of Western and Eastern European styles in Garayev's work. 

"There's a soul of a romantic composer there. I see the soul of Schumann in the 24 Piano Preludes," she said. "Each one has a character. Very much a romantic feeling. "

Javadova-Spitzberg earned her doctoral degree in organ performance at UNT under Lenora McCroskey. She hopes the concert might be the first step in a more formal music exchange between the United States and Azerbaijan. She recorded Gara Garayev: Transcriptions for Organ last year. 

"I'd like UNT to lead an effort of U.S.-Azerbaijan relations, but also in a conservatory context. I'd like to see streaming classes between UNT College of Music and the conservatory in Baku," Javadova-Spitzberg said. 

The concert is free, and will feature UNT music faculty instrumentalists and vocalists.