Toronto Symphony Salutes Armenian Music And Artists

Violinist Sergey soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, and conductor Peter Oundjian with the Toronto Symphony.  (Photo by Malcolm Cook)
Violinist Sergey Khachatryan, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, and conductor Peter Oundjian with the Toronto Symphony.
(Photo by Malcolm Cook)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — On April 22, the Armenian community of Toronto was given an opportunity to celebrate both its homeland and its connections to Canada. Their host was the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, performing in its usual downtown venue, Roy Thomson Hall. The community responded by packing the hall to the rafters and enthusiastically applauding every Armenian artist who stepped on stage.

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian spent many years in Toronto.
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian spent many years in Toronto.

On the podium was conductor Peter Oundjian. In his decade as music director of the TSO, he has usually worn his Armenian-ness lightly — and if you didn’t already know he was partly of Armenian descent, you’d never guess it from his light English accent.

Better known for her connections to Armenia is soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. Born in Lebanon, she lived in Toronto for many years and built up a substantial local following. (These days, she calls Southern California home, where she teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara.)

The evening also marked the TSO debut of violin soloist Sergey Khachatryan. From Yerevan, Armenia, he’s not quite 30 years old and has already appeared with many U.S. orchestras: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, and more.

In his remarks from the stage, Oundjian credited another prominent member of Toronto’s Armenian community with the genesis of the concert, which heralded the international observance on April 24 of the Centennial of the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Genocides. Oundjian said that filmmaker and opera director Atom Egoyan contacted the TSO 18 months ago with ideas for the program.

The Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian was well represented through his Violin Concerto and a three-movement suite drawn from his music for Mikhail Lermontov’s stage play Masquerade and his own ballet Spartacus. Also included were some songs by Gomidas Vartabed, a priest, composer, and ethnographer (often simply known as “Gomidas” or “Komitas”), who died in 1935.

Canadian composer Mychael Danna with his Golden Globe for The LIfe of Pi.
Canadian composer Danna with his Golden Globe for ‘Life of Pi.’

The most recent piece on the program was Ararat by Canadian composer Mychael Danna. Billed as a world premiere, it was based on his 2002 score for Agoyan’s film Ararat, which deals with the Armenian Genocide of 1915 from a contemporary perspective. The Toronto-born Danna has been successful in film, with a penchant for bringing “world music” influences into his scores. In 2013, his music for Life of Pi won an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

For Ararat, the TSO was augmented with three prominent Armenian musicians: Hampic Djabourian played the duduk (a cross between a flute and an oboe), Levon Ichkhanian the tar (a kind of mandolin), and Siavash Kavehmaryan the kamancheh (a bowed instrument, something like a viola da gamba).

These instruments added delicate, culture-specific colors to Ararat. Yet even amplified, the Armenian soloists often sounded meager up against a 19th-century orchestra, especially as Danna did not hold back on his use of brass. However, there was nothing meager about Bayrakdarian when she walked out on stage to end the piece with a sinewy, plangent song.

Danna was the only featured musician of the evening who isn’t Armenian, yet in Ararat he paid his respects to Armenian style, with added touches of modernist dissonance. As for the work’s formal structure, it had the narrative, episodic quality that film music often has when it’s adapted for the concert hall.

Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan. (Philippe Gontier)
Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan made his debut. (Philippe Gontier)

Bayrakdarian was also heard at the opening of the concert, singing three songs by Gomidas — “Without a Home,” “Apricot Tree,” and “Dear Shogher” — arranged by Armenian-Canadian composer Serouj Kradjian, her husband, for string orchestra and piano. Filling the hall with her lush voice, Bayrakdarian soared through extended melismas and made light work of complex embellishments. She returned to the stage later in the program to sing “The Crane,” a Gomidas song that’s closely associated with the Genocide.

The most substantial work on the program was Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto. Here, Khachatryan triumphed. This young violinist has a big sound, warm vibrato, penetrating edge (when he needs it), and bright upper register. It would be cliché to say that he has this music in his blood. But he certainly has this concerto under his fingers, and he played it with authority and bravura.

The TSO concluded the program with the Khachaturian excerpts. Oundjian and his orchestra gave a rip-roaring account of the “Waltz” and a lyrical “Nocturne” (featuring TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow) from Masquerade, and a lively “Variation of Aegina and Bacchanalia” from Spartacus.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould.