Bayrakdarian Tells Stories in Song for Edmonton Recital

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Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and pianist-composer Serouj Kradjian, partners in music and life. (Serouj Kradjian)
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and pianist Serouj Kradjian, her husband, frequently partner in musical projects. (S. Kradjian)
By Bill Rankin

EDMONTON, Alberta — Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian genuinely conveys the stories of the songs she sings with physical, emotional, and musical charisma. Witness the eclectic and utterly engaging recital she gave Oct. 25 with composer-pianist Serouj Kradjian, her husband, at McDougall United Church in the Edmonton Chamber Music Society series.

Edmonton's historic McDougall United Church sanctuary.
Edmonton’s McDougall United Church is a home to chamber music.

Edmonton is known, even in the American sunbelt, as a place where hockey dynasties used to reign, but the most northerly major city in Canada, the capital of Alberta, home of immense and controversial tar sands reserves, also has a rich history of classical music. The 56-piece Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which performs in the Winspear Centre, played Carnegie Hall for the first time during the second Spring for Music Festival in 2012 under its Buffalo-born music director, Bill Eddins. Edmonton Opera celebrates its 50th anniversary this season.

Among several presenters of chamber music in this city of about a million is the Edmonton Chamber Music Society, founded at the University of Alberta more than 60 years ago. With a subscriber base of about 600, the ECMS programs internationally renowned artists, some of whom are Canadians.

Isabel Bayrakdarian is a Grammy nominee and multiple Juno Award winner. (Dario Acosta)
Bayrakdarian is a Grammy nominee and Juno winner. (Dario Acosta)

Toronto-based Isabel Bayrakdarian has recorded Baroque operas, tango music, sound tracks for hit movies, Armenian church and secular songs, and symphonic repertoire, some of which are available on YouTube. Her recordings, which have garnered a Grammy nomination and multiple Juno awards, Canada’s equivalent to the Grammys, present all aspects of her broad talent, the greatest of which may be her fabulous gift for hypnotic melisma. Bayrakdarian is never more captivating than when she is singing an ornamented vowel.

She opened her Edmonton recital with several Liszt songs, beginning with “Die drei Zigeuner” and followed by No. 1 and No. 3 from Tre sonetti di Petrarca. Wearing a formidable black gown, one shoulder bared, the Lebanese-Canadian singer established a tone of high seriousness emphatically with Liszt’s song about the gypsies’ resilience in the face of life’s travails and impermanence – and her bona fides in the art song repertoire.

Bayrakdarian has recorded Armenian folk songs. (Michael Agyan)
Bayrakdarian has recorded Armenian folk songs. (Michael Agyan)

The themes of the first half were the staples – love and death – but her choices offered ample variety in color and compositional style. Jake Heggie’s Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia are no less serious thematically than Petrarch’s, yet Heggie has an ear for American musical theatre, and Bayrakdarian, without drifting into some hybrid vocal idiom, presented these pieces with the lighter touch they invite. Her power comes from an authenticity she projects as a physical presence in a room and as a singer focused on shaping her material in a beautiful and unaffected way. Throughout the evening, she sang opera selections but just as often drew from folk traditions as diverse as those from Ireland, Armenia, and the Caribbean, with care for the earthier ethos of that genre.

In the second half, she wore a form-fitting brocade gown befitting the relatively cheerier material. Bayrakdarian has always been an ambassador for Armenian musical culture. The first four tunes in part two were Armenian folk songs by Gomidas Vardapet. “Lullaby,” she explained, is one of her two young children’s favorites, while “Apricot Tree” is a rough-edged lover’s rant, inveighing against the tree’s power to remind him of the pain that has plunged him “into the black abyss.”

Kradjian, who is also a composer, was a consummately sensitive collaborator. (serouj.com)
Kradjian was the consummately sensitive collaborator. (serouj.com)

Bayrakdarian has deep experience in various Spanish-language repertoire. Her 2003 Azulão CD won a Juno, and in 2008 she released Tango Notturno, most of which travels far beyond the works of Nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla. Her Edmonton program ended on the Spanish side, including Xavier Montsalvatge’s Cinco Canciones Negras. Of these songs, her tender rendition of “Lullaby for a Little Black Boy” (Canción de Cuna Para Dormir a un Negito”) was spellbindingly beautiful.

The evening ended on a whimsical group of variations on the lyric “Meow,” some of them Baroque-inspired. Kradjian, who throughout the evening played the consummately sensitive collaborator, echoed the singer’s feline reflections in good fun, and the Edmonton audience went home charmed and uplifted.

Bayrakdarian’s latest album, Troubadour & the Nightingale, recorded with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, will be released Nov.12.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.