Once they've hit the big time, opera stars have often used their platforms to explore and promote their national heritages. Enrico Caruso belted Neapolitan songs, Jussi Björling sang Swedish songs, Jessye Norman performed spirituals, Plácido Domingo championed zarzuelas -- and so on.
So the Canadian Armenian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is following a long-standing tradition as she blazes her own national trail. She is trying to spread the word about the music of Gomidas Vartabed (1869-1935) -- known as simply Gomidas -- who is credited with preserving and developing the Armenian folk song tradition.
A new recording of Gomidas songs, bearing a striking photograph of Bayrakdarian staring thoughtfully at the sea, has just been released on Nonesuch Records. Her October concert tour with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra -- whose second stop was Sunday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa -- is built around Gomidas, with inspired and even unlikely links to other composers who filtered ethnic music through their own personalities.
Gomidas' tragic story still reverberates with the Armenian community, for the hard-working ethnomusicologist-conductor-composer-priest did his job barely in time. In 1915, he was deported from Istanbul (then Constantinople) by the ruling Turks at the start of the Armenian genocide, which wiped out any remaining traces of his culture in his homeland.
Although he was subsequently returned to Istanbul, where he remained for several years, he died near Paris a broken man, never realizing his grand plans for an Armenian opera and a conservatory.
That said, one regretfully has to report that the mildly spiced Gomidas songs on Sunday's program -- orchestrated with skilled restraint by Bayrakdarian's husband, Serouj Kradjian, who also played some delicate Gomidas dances on the piano -- were not as riveting as the story behind them. Bayrakdarian's voice carried with ample power throughout the hall over the 19-piece string orchestra yet sometimes had a slight edge not present on the recording (this might be attributed to Segerstrom's acoustics).
But other important points were made. With Anne Manson leading the Manitobans (sans Bayrakdarian) at a ripping tempo, Bartók's Rumanian Folk Dances demonstrated that the Hungarian composer was working on a course parallel with Gomidas'. So was Nikos Skalkottas, whose appealingly folksy Greek Dances are an anomaly for a composer best known for his 12-tone bent.
There were also musical and historical links to another 20th century genocide. Ravel's enigmatic Two Hebraic Melodies were grippingly sung -- and Holocaust victim Gideon Klein's Variations on a Moravian Folksong (in a full-blooded string orchestra arrangement by Vojtèch Saudek) revealed a young composer well versed in midcentury neoclassicism.
In all, the program represented a fascinating concept whose real message was one of widespread ethnic preservation and suffering in the 20th century rather than the work of a single composer.