Happy birthday, Gomitas: Bayrakdarian celebrates the famed composer

Isabel Bayrakdarian is likely the only human on the planet who can win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, contribute to a Grammy-winning album (she was featured vocalist on the soundtrack of “The Two Towers”), walk away with four consecutive Juno Awards for Best Classical Album (that’s the Canadian version of the Grammys), garner a Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal and graduate cum laude from the University of Toronto with a biomedical engineering degree.

Pictured above: Isabel Bayrakdarian performs Saturday, Oct. 26, at Shaghoian Hall.

Talk about a natural-born achiever.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Bayrakdarian — who claims Fresno as an honorary second home because of family members who live here — should be so diligent and dedicated to the program of music she’s performing Saturday at Shaghoian Hall. The concert is presented by the Lively Arts Foundation.

This is the great Gomitas we’re talking about, after all, considered to be the founder of the Armenian national school of music. (He was born in 1860 and died in 1935, after having lived through the Armenian Genocide.) She grew up with his music in church, and as a professional singer, she has delighted in diving deeply into his body of work. In putting together the program for “Isabel Bayrakdarian & Friends: A Musical Celebration Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Gomitas Vartabed,” she diligently and systematically worked to create a program that not only pays tribute to the composer but breaks new ground musically as well.

Congratulations: Readers Chris Simmons and Cleo Bauer each won tickets from The Munro Review to Saturday’s concert

“It was a huge honor to curate a whole program of Gomitas,” she says by phone from her office at UC Santa Barbara, where she teaches voice. “And it was an immense responsibility. How do you showcase such a great composer, someone who is considered the father of Armenian modern music? I am so giddy to be able to show the audience not only something they already know, but also to discover something new.”


Take, for example, the spelling of the composer’s name. (He was born Soghomon Soghomonian, but when he took vows as a priest, he took a new, single name. “Vartabed” is a type of priest, and after he took his vows, he only went by his new, single name.) Most people know him as Komitas, which is how the name is translated from Armenian. A person with an eastern dialect — from the Republic of Armenia, say — would pronounce it with a hard “K.”

But Bayrakdarian, a proud member of the Armenian diaspora, has a western dialect, and she pronounces the name with more of a “G” sound.

“I have chosen this way because of authenticity,” she says.

Her quest for accuracy goes far beyond cosmetic spelling differences. She spent a lot of time researching Gomitas’ music and reflecting on the best way to present it. The program highlights the composer’s well-known sacred, secular, choral, solo, and chamber music. It also introduces listeners to some of his lesser-known works, including a series of children’s songs.

On the phone, her enthusiasm for the program comes across with a grand sweep of ideas and details. This project is a profoundly personal one for her.

“Oh my gosh, I’m getting goosebumps saying this,” she says as she contemplates the young people lost in the Armenian Genocide and then makes a connection to the composer’s children’s songs. “It’s like children whose voices were silenced were begging me to sing them.”

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One of the first indicators that this won’t be a “typical” Gomitas concert is the instrumentation. There won’t be a piano in sight.

When people think of Gomitas, they often think of piano-voice arrangements. Bayrakdarian herself has sung much of his repertoire with piano. But the piano isn’t a traditional Armenian instrument. Bayrakdarian says that the composer published his music with piano accompaniment in an effort to popularize it in such western countries as France and Germany.

Instead of a piano, the concert features a string quartet, flute and harp, all instruments that better capture the “Armenian” sound.

As she did her research, Bayrakdarian was surprised by two revelations.

The first was that the composer collected and composed those children’s songs already mentioned. They aren’t well known, probably because they were never harmonized. So Bayrakdarian commissioned Artur Avanesov to arrange the songs, lullabies, and children’s prayers for voice with flute and harp accompaniment. (Guest artists are Alexander Kalman, violin; Dimitry Olevsky, violin; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; Garik Terzian, cello; Jill Felber, flute; and Ellie Choate, harp. It will be the world premiere.

Bayrakdarian is touched by this part of the program because of the memories the songs trigger. “Even though I am an opera singer, I am still the same little girl who was singing these children’s songs,” she says.

Gomitas, the famed Armenian composer.

The second revelation was that Gomitas composed a group of sacred choral music pieces in the German language, she explains in the concert program. These were composed when he was a student in Berlin from 1896–1901. They will be recognizable to those familiar with the Armenian liturgy, but you can hear the distinct influence of the “Western choral music tradition of Germany, dating back to Bach, whereas the Armenian version relies on the harmonies and style of Eastern Music.” The Fresno Coro Vox Aeterna, a small ensemble under the umbrella of the Fresno Community Chorus, will be conducted by Anna Hamre, and Bayrakdarian is the featured soprano.

Gomitas is celebrated for being an ethnomusicologist as well as a composer, and he traveled throughout rural Armenia collecting folk songs and notating them. Bayrakdarian loves that part of the composer’s story. The concert ends with a selection of wedding folk songs and rustic folk songs for soprano and chamber choir.

The result should be a concert filled with a celebratory lightness of the soul. She makes a comparison to another famous composer, she says. “You cannot approach Mozart with fear or reverence,” she says. “You have to exult in Mozart. It is the same with Gomitas.”

She’s proud, too, of premiering the program in Fresno, a city she loves. (Along with several performances with the Fresno Philharmonic, she’s also known for singing at St. Paul Armenian Church when she visits.)

After the Fresno performance, Bayrakdarian and the rest of the musicians will repeat the concert at two additional venues: on Nov. 10 at St. Leon-Ghevontiants Armenian Cathedral in Burbank; and on Jan. 18 at Saint John Armenian Apostolic Church in San Francisco.

There will be many 150th birthday tributes around the world, and Bayrakdarian is pleased that hers is personal. After months immersed in planning, she has emerged with an even deeper appreciation for the father of Armenian music.

“A legacy doesn’t mean leaving something for people,” she says. “It means leaving something in people. In this regard, Gomitas preserved the soul of the Armenian people through music.”

Concert info

‘Isabel Bayrakdarian & Friends,’ a Lively Arts Foundation production, 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, Shaghoian Hall. Tickets are $30-$65.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Burrola Gloria

    I have never heard her but would be thrilled to.


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