Classical Music Review: Focus on Armenia

By Caldwell Titcomb

Considered the father of Armenian music, Gomidas (or Komitas) was born Soghomon Soghomonian in 1869, and became active as a composer, singer, choir conductor, ethnomusicologist and priest. In 1915 he was one of 300 artists arrested and deported at the start of the Armenian genocide. He became so unhinged that he ceased all musical activity and died twenty years later in a Paris mental institution.

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is a real find.

In the early years of the twentieth century he traveled about Armenia and collected more than 3,000 songs, which he arranged for chorus or for voice and piano. He also amassed a body of dances. There is evidence that he planned to arrange this music for larger ensembles – and this is what the Armenian-Canadian composer/pianist Serouj Kradjian (b. 1973) has done with a substantial amount of this material.

The Celebrity Series of Boston brought some of this music to Jordan Hall last week as part of a Remembrance Tour sponsored by the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, memorializing not only the Armenian genocide but the subsequent Jewish Holocaust and the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.

The singer was Kradjian’s wife, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (b. 1974), a Canadian of Armenian descent. She was new to me, though in 2000 she won first prize in the Operalia competition founded by Placido Domingo and has garnered a passel of awards for her CD recordings. (Curiously her 1997 degree from the University of Toronto is in biomedical engineering.)

She is a real find. Her voice is sumptuous and highly expressive, and she sings solidly on pitch. Quite appropriately, her last name means “standard bearer.”

The songs that Gomidas collected fall into five categories: children, nature, love, humor, and yearning. Bayrakdarian’s ten songs came from all five. Most of them were on the slow side, though a couple were relatively lively. I was particularly taken with “Apricot Tree” and “Jingle-Jangle.”

Supporting the soprano, with or without piano, were nineteen string players from the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra (founded in 1972), led authoritatively by the well-known conductor Anne Marson, a magna cum laude 1983 graduate of Harvard. On two numbers the players were joined by Hampic Djabourian, playing the Armenian folk instrument called duduk, a woodwind of the oboe family that exudes the warmth of a clarinet.

Kradjian gave us five short samples of Gomidas’ dances, along with four dances from the Opus 11 set by the short-lived Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas (1904-49). And Bayrakdarian beautifully performed the “Deux Mélodies Hébraïques” (1914) by Maurice Ravel, sometimes erroneously thought to have been Jewish. The orchestra opened the concert with Bela Bartok’s “Romanian Folkdances” (1915), arranged by Arthur Willner.

The remaining composer on the program was Gideon Klein (1919-45), a Jewish Czech composer/conductor/pianist, who in 1941 was interned in Theresienstadt, sent to Auschwitz in 1944 and then to a coal mine in Silesia, where he died just weeks before the camp was liberated. His last composition was a Partita for Strings, from which we heard the slow movement, a set of variations on a Moravian folksong, in a 1990 arrangement for string orchestra by Vojtech Saudek.

In connection with this Remembrance Tour, Isabel Bayrakdarian has just issued on Nonesuch Records a lovely CD entitled “Gomidas Songs.” This contains eighteen songs plus two piano dances (played by her husband), performed by members of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Eduard Topchjan. The songs are arranged in the five aforementioned categories.

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