Producer-musician Ohad Wilner and film editor Stewart Shevin grew up in Jewish families never forgetting the Holocaust, but they had no knowledge of the Armenian Genocide perpetrated years earlier by the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
Their knowledge came as they worked on musical projects with first-generation Armenian-American Dan Yessian, and the two enthusiastically helped communicate long-denied atrocities with an award-winning film.
The three-movement classical composition, An Armenian Trilogy – Live in Yerevan, performed by the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra, is available on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon.
Milford resident Yessian generally immerses his business team in developing music for television shows, commercials, theme parks and game platforms through Yessian Music Inc., his music production company based in Farmington Hills with offices in New York, Los Angeles and Hamburg, Germany. Among Yessian’s many clients are the Ford Motor Company, Disney and Intel. But he entered into personally meaningful projects following a request from a religious leader at the Southfield church he attends.
Yessian was asked to create music expressing emotions associated with the 100th anniversary of the start of the atrocities in 1915, and the resulting symphony, “An Armenian Trilogy” as performed by the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra in 2017, became the center of a new documentary with the same title. The film chronicles Yessian’s journey from composing music for advertisements to writing his first classical composition in honor of the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
Prelude to the Holocaust
Wilner and Shevin readily associate the horrifying experiences of Armenians with the horrifying experiences of Jews, and Yessian agrees.
“The Armenians and the Jews went through a lot of the same things,” said the composer, who has also produced music for a fundraising project initiated by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
“And it’s not only Jews and Armenians through time. The story just goes on and on.”
The film, mostly via unscripted narration by Yessian, points out that in 1939, before invading Poland, Hitler expressed incentive for his horrific actions by suggesting no one remembered the Armenian Genocide so no one would likely remember their actions either. And indeed, it wasn’t until 2019 that the U.S. Senate and House voted to recognize the mass Armenian killings that lasted until 1922 as a genocide.
The film invites viewers into the Yessian home to see where the music was created and to listen to comments from Yessian’s wife, Kathy, as she recalls her husband’s work. Historic film footage from Armenia dramatizes the symphonic sounds.
Creating the Tone
“This is the most serious [musical project] that I’ve done,” said Yessian, who works at a Steinway baby grand once owned by composer-performer Burt Bacharach. “It’s a complete, three-movement, classical piece.”
“The Freedom” presents the mood of the happier times before the atrocities began. “The Fear” delves into the dangers with galloping rhythms to represent soldiers on horseback leaning down to spear their victims. “The Faith” explores a sense of religious doubts before moving into a sense of hope for the future.
“I’m an ear musician, and I don’t really read music,” Yessian said. “The music [results from] whatever I’m imagining, and I get help with the notation. What I couldn’t play on the piano [for this piece], I would sing for the notation.”
Wilner, whose mother, Niva Wilner, teaches Hebrew at Hillel Day School, described his work on An Armenian Trilogy as doing whatever it took to come up with the finished film, and that involved being on set to help with camera responsibilities or directing, working on the audio mix and writing copy.
A still shot from the documentary.
“I did have some parts in the film as we overdubbed,” said Wilner, an essentially self-taught, multi-instrumentalist musician who had piano lessons as a youngster. “I do some layers of electric guitar during the second movement, which is supposed to be very angry and emotional.”
He said the inspirational nature of the film resonated with him: “It’s about a man who is a first-generation American finding his way with a passion for music and making a living doing what he loves.
“I’m a kindred spirit as a musician and first-generation American. My parents are Israeli. I think this movie can serve as an inspiration for those who are seeking success through their passion.”
Both Yessian and Wilner give credit for the film’s smoothness to Shevin, who has worked on projects for the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.
“In working on this film, I was especially intrigued with the idea of someone looking for roots,” Shevin said. “It’s about what we all share and coming together.”
The film, shown at seven festivals, has received the Audience Choice Award at the Soo Film Festival in Sault St. Marie, the Best Score designation at the Northwest Ohio Historic Film Festival and the Exceptional Merit Award at the Docs Without Borders Film Festival.
“When this pandemic is over, I would like to have the musical piece flourish for live performance,” Yessian said. “Music gets to the heart.”
The documentary An Armenian Trilogy is available on Amazon. The three-movement classical composition, An Armenian Trilogy – Live in Yerevan, performed by the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra, is available on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon. Further music availability details and background information can be found at armeniantrilogy.com.