Khojaly victims remembered through music in the heart of London

Press Release: On 26 February – 24 years to the day after the tragic events in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly – a moving classical concert took place amidst the stunning neoclassical surroundings of the 17th century St. Paul’s Church in commemoration of the victims of the massacre in 1992.  This was the worst single atrocity of the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and claimed the lives of 613 civilian victims in 1992, including 106 women, 63 children and 70 elderly people. Around 250 people attended the evening, including Mrs Leyla Aliyeva, Vice-President, Heydar Aliyev Foundation and Founder, Justice for Khojaly international campaign. The concert, held in what is frequently referred to as the Actors’ Church, was recorded for broadcast on London Live television, which has an estimated viewership of 190,000 people.

After a swift greeting, Lionel Zetter, Director, The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) turned the floor over to Tale Heydarov, Chairman and Founder, TEAS, who said: “I would like to introduce you all to the Justice for Khojaly campaign, to which TEAS has added its voice in support over the past three years. Justice for Khojaly began eight years ago, and has played an integral role in raising awareness of what ranks amongst one of most terrible crimes that happened not just in Azerbaijan, but in its region, and in the world. 

“We commemorate this massacre every year, and today marks the 24th anniversary of the deaths. So many innocent children, women and elderly persons were killed in a very brutal way. This massacre has been acknowledged by many international organisations. However, unlike with many other mass killings, the perpetrators have never been brought to justice in international courts. The aim of the Justice for Khojaly campaign is to achieve justice for those people who were killed and for those who committed the crimes to be forced to answer for their actions.”

The evening began with the plaintive sound of the Azerbaijani tar, played by the septuagenarian Rafiq Rustamov, one of the foremost living exponents on the instrument, himself born near Khojaly. He performed Zaminkara, based on the Dogah Mugham, the sound of his intricate and quiet instrument resounding around the hushed hall. This was followed by Azerbaijani pianist Gunel Mirzayeva’s performance of Bach’s Sarabande (from English Suite No.3 in G Minor), a slow, stately and emotional piece. She then played contemporary Azerbaijani composer Adil Babirov’s Prélude–Scherzo, replete with dissonances, yet interpolated with the microtones of Azerbaijani mugham.

Jamal Aliyev, a 22-year-old cellist currently studying at the Royal College of Music, went on to play the contemplative Méditation  (from Thaïs) by Jules Massanet. This was followed by Poem–Monologue by Azerbaijani composer Fikret Amirov, one of his earliest works from 1948. Amirov’s familial roots were in Shusha, also in Nagorno-Karabakh, known as the Conservatoire of the Caucasus and the home of Azerbaijani culture. His work is notable for its incorporation of folk melodies.

Next on the programme was a long-term London resident, the Azerbaijani violinist Nazrin Rashidova, who has just released her third album on the Naxos label. She selected the Belgian composer Eugène Ysaÿe’s L’Aurore (from Solo Sonata No.5), a transcendental work that evokes daybreak, as the sun ascends into the sky. This was followed by Mirhashim Hashimov and Azad Aliyev’s special arrangement of the Rast mugham for solo violin.

Pianist Ayyan Salahova – a graduate from the Royal Academy of Music – performed the longest single work on the programme, an arrangement by esteemed Azerbaijani composer Gara Garayev of his rousing film score for Don Quixote.

The stage was then given to soprano Seljan Nasibli, another graduate from the Royal College of Music, who performed Pergolesi’s song evoking the Virgin Mary’s sorrow – Vidit suum dulcem natum from the Stabat Mater. Her second piece was Vasif Adigezalov’s Shusham Laylay (My Shusha), dedicated to the Armenian-occupied town.

The final two pieces were performed by the largest group to take the stage ­– the multinational Deco Ensemble – in a configuration featuring oud player Attab Haddad and led by violinist Sabina Rakcheyeva, the first Azerbaijani graduate from the Juilliard School in New York. They played her special arrangement of the best-known Azerbaijani folksong – the poignant Sari Gelin (Blonde Bride) – followed by Sabina’s own composition Towards the East, a dramatic, exhilarating piece, redolent of her homeland.

This was a stark, intimate and emotionally-charged evening. Despite the passing of four UN Security Council resolutions against the invasion, Armenia continues to occupy Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts to this day. Currently nearly 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory remains occupied, and approximately 875,000 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain spread across Azerbaijan. The concert was dedicated to the memory of the Khojaly victims and those Azerbaijanis who have one wish – to return home and live in peace with their neighbours.