SOPRANO REMEMBERS GENOCIDE IN SONG
By Timothy Mangan, [email protected]
Monday, October 6, 2008
Review: Canadian-Armenian singer Isabel Bayrakdarian performs in O.C.
The Orange County Register
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian’s concert, Sunday evening in Segerstrom
Concert Hall, was not a garden variety singing recital. The event was
part of her "Remembrance" tour, dedicated to "all victims of genocide,"
and supported in part by the International Institute for Genocide
and Human Rights Studies. As such, the concert had a somber side,
to be sure, but the subject of genocide served mostly as subtext
rather than as explicit musical material.
It was also an expression of national pride. The music of Gomidas
Vartabed (1869-1935) served as the focal point. Regarded as Armenia’s
national composer, Gomidas was a priest, composer, choirmaster and
ethnomusicologist, trained in the West, who codified and clarified
Armenia’s sacred and folk music, much in the manner that Bartok did
in Hungary. Bayrakdarian has just released an album (on Nonesuch)
of his songs, seldom heard here, but apparently well known and loved
by the Armenians in Sunday’s audience.
The project has obviously been a labor of love for the soprano. Born in
Lebanon to Armenian parents, but raised in Canada (she is a Canadian
citizen), Bayrakdarian became interested in this music during a
recent visit to her homeland. Her husband, pianist Serouj Kradjian,
arranged some of the material, and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra,
conducted by Anne Manson, is taking part in the tour.
Gomidas’s songs predate the Armenian genocide of 1915. In that
year, the composer was deported to Cankiri, but, partly through the
intercession of an American ambassador, was released. He never did
recover from the experience, though, and never did compose again,
dying in a mental institution in Paris.
His folk songs heard here have a special tang and
simplicity. Typically, the vocal line is long and ornate, decorated
with jumping rhythms and quick-turning filigree, and the accompaniment
is simple but evocative. Many of them have a haunting, mysterious
Bayrakdarian, who made a charming Susannah in a recent production of
"The Marriage of Figaro" at L.A. Opera, and who sings on many of the
world’s big operatic stages these days, performed them with disarming
sincerity. Most of the time, she pared down her silvery soprano to
fit the intimate scope of the music, but she also had her operatic
chops in reserve, resonating at peaks. She stressed the long line
above all else, using vibrato sparely, suppressing self-serving nuance.
Gomidas’ "Without a Home" and "The Crane," among others, expressed the
sad side of folk music, slow and yearning numbers bearing witness to
hard peasant life. But there were love songs and children’s songs,
too, playful and sunny. Bayrakdarian negotiated the acrobatics in
these latter pieces with lively grace. Kradjian’s string orchestra
arrangements of the piano accompaniments were models of restraint
and good taste, while also atmospherically resonant.
To a couple of these songs, Kradjian added an Armenian folk instrument,
the duduk (played by Hampic Djabourian), a double reed woodwind
that sounds a little like a crumhorn crossed with a soft, muted
trumpet. Lovely. He also arranged Ravel’s "Deux melodies hebraïques"
for strings and voice in aptly acidic style.
Kradjian performed several of Gomidas’s dances for piano, folk pieces
that revealed the Western influences of Chopin and Bach, delicate
things that he played with a light touch.
Manson and the Manitobans added Bartok’s "Romanian Folk Dances,"
several of the Op. 11 "Greek Dances" by Nikos Skalkottas (a pupil
of Schoenberg), and the spiky "Variations on a Moravian Folksong"
from the Partita for Strings by Gideon Klein, who wrote them shortly
before his death in a German concentration camp. Manson led the solid,
polished orchestra in robust and committed performances.