Ararat: Music of Armenia

That’s better!

Peter Oundjian is back in the saddle leading the Toronto Symphony with his easy authority, and once again there is an intersection between political and musical spheres, but without the friction we saw last time.

Those parts of the world who are not in denial of the Armenian catastrophe of 1915 are commemorating the centennial. Roy Thomson Hall was packed including a large Armenian contingent, the excitement palpable. We were told that this special concert –titled “Ararat: Music of Armenia” –was a result of a collaboration between film-maker Atom Egoyan, and Oundjian,  to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

There were four very distinct sections to the concert.  First came three songs by Gomidas Vartabed, to show us the “father of Armenian classical music”, as if to give us background for the more recent compositions that were to follow.  They were sung by Isabel Bayrakdarian in arrangements by her husband Serouj Kradjian, who participated from the piano in the midst of the orchestra.  Bayrakdarian employed some extraordinary sounds, a bit different from the voice I’ve known for so many years, singing at times with an unaffected directness that I would compare to the sound one makes in youth before one acquires the technique of a great artist but at all times the voice had clarity and commitment, a portrayal of pain in arrangements of great clarity & directness.  They added a fourth song, namely “Groonk” (or “the crane”), as the bird is asked for news from the homeland far away, this latter song as background for what was to come.

The other item before intermission was Khatchaturian’s Violin Concerto played by a young Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan. To my ear it’s Khatchaturian’s usual mix of wonderful rhythms, soaring melodies and an accessibility that made Khatchaturian a favourite in Stalin’s time. Young Khachatryan’s approach was very transparent, very clear, especially in the lyrical second movement, breath-takingly beautiful.

The second part of the concert opened with an electrifying world premiere / TSO commission, namely Ararat, a score by Academy Award-winning Canadian composer Mychael Danna that’s an elaboration of music for Atom Egoyan’s 2002 film of the same name. Danna might be the most successful composer in this country, with a large body of work in the cinematic realm.  Whether he chooses to re-purpose existing compositions or compose new music for the concert hall there’s certainly room for more if it’s anything like this.

Composer Mychael Danna (click on image for website)

Composer Mychael Danna (click on image for website)

Having been to many premieres of original music that only saw a single performance, I devoutly hope this work sees the light of day again, perhaps getting recorded. Danna’s score is ambitious in all the right ways, exploring a story that is officially denied in some parts of the world. I couldn’t help feeling that the first parts of the work –featuring three Armenian instruments, namely, the tar, the duduk and the kemanche—framed Armenia within an objective world witnessing this truth, the sombre orchestra enclosing but not silencing their distinctly ethnic sounds. In a latter part of the work, Bayrakdarian sings beautifully –I am sorry I don’t know the text she was singing, possibly from the aforementioned crane song?—framed by the most curious use of brass, that seems to stand in a kind of commentary, not unlike the countries denying the history, and with a genuine air of menace. In places Danna’s music has the blunt simplicity of film music, getting right down to business without wasting time or empty rhetorical gestures. This is music unafraid of making an emotional appeal, unashamed of conventional tonalities and without the anxiety of influence plaguing conservatory composers. This is among the most beautiful original music I’ve heard in a very long time. To repeat, I hope that this music is recorded! It deserves to be heard.

The closing items were every bit as direct & enjoyable, a Suite by Khatchaturian including several familiar melodies, a rousing conclusion to a very special concert.

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