Songs Of The Homeland

Lloyd Dykk, [email protected]

Vancouver Sun
Monday, October 06, 2008

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian goes back to her Armenian roots

She’s used to lending her ravishing soprano to Mozart all over the
world, but Isabel Bayrakdarian’s new interest is a virtually unknown
composer, at least to those outside her homeland of Armenia —
Gomidas Vartabed.

She’s just got off the plane from her home in Toronto and checked
into the hotel in Fresno, Calif., to begin a tour that includes San
Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Boston and New York’s Carnegie
Hall. Every concert will feature the songs of Gomidas, as arranged by
her pianist husband Serouj Kradjian for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
under its conductor Anne Manson. The concert comes to the Orpheum on
Oct. 7 at 8 p.m.

She says, "The program is woven around Gomidas and other nations and
cultures that have suffered persecution," so expect references to
Greece and Israel.

It’s called the Remembrance Tour. Dedicated to victims of all
genocides, it’s sponsored by the International Institute for Genocide
and Human Rights Studies. The concert virtually duplicates her new
Gomidas recording on the Nonesuch label with the Chamber Players
of the Armenian Philharmonic and Kradjian. Though some material was
recorded during the Soviet era, the release represents the very first
time that Gomidas’ songs have been presented on an international label.

I mention to Bayrakdarian that I’ve never heard Gomidas’s music. "It
may be a revelation," she says simply.

Gomidas, sometimes spelled Komitas, had a tragic life, a fact that
has no doubt gone into making him Armenia’s national composer.

He was born in 1869 to a musical, Turkish-speaking family, his mother
dying when he was one and his father when he was 11. He was brought
up by his grandmother. Educated in a seminary, he became a monk and
established a monastery choir. About 30 years before Bartok did the
same thing, he wandered about the countryside collecting the folk
songs of his Armenian people, notating it on paper, not recording it
like Bartok since recorders didn’t exist.

>From 1910 he lived in Istanbul. In 1915 at the beginning of the
Armenian genocide, he was arrested and deported on a train to central
Anatolia. He lived in concentration camp-like conditions for 15 days
until the intervention of highly placed friends had him released.

In 1935 he died in a psychiatric clinic in Paris, having spent the
last 20 years of his life like the walking dead. Bayrakdarian thinks
it was caused by all the death and horrors he’d seen.

He wrote far more music than that which exists and had planned to
write an opera. Much of what he’d written was destroyed, she says. "His
legacy went into obscurity. What’s left of his songs resonates in the
Armenian psyche. He seemed to capture the essence of Armenian music
and for survivors, it seems to enforce in us the function of hanging
on to our identity and our past."

His music isn’t complicated, Bayrakdarian adds. "They’re folk
songs, but very unique — about love, nature, children. We haven’t
reinterpreted them."

Her favourite piece of all is a children’s prayer with its haunting
melody. "It was the last piece he wrote."

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