Toronto Celebrates Komitas’ 150th Anniversary

By: Dr. Araxie Altounian

Fall 2019 is bound to see a culmination of events worldwide celebrating the life and work of Father Komitas who was born on September 26, 1869 in Kötahia, Western Anatolia. On this occasion, a few Toronto-based Armenian musicians chose to commemorate this very special 150th anniversary in an unprecedented way, by bringing Komitas out of the Armenian circle and placing him on the Canadian stage.

Two upcoming fall events that may seem unrelated saw the light with similar goals in mind: to propagate the music of Komitas beyond the Armenian community, by reaching out to a broader audience, while displaying the diverse ways in which it has influenced various genres of music. This venture was complemented by a national broadcast on CBC Music when host Paolo Pietropaolo dedicated his hour-long “In Concert Revival Hour” program to the life and work of Komitas on September 22. The Revival Hour segment presents a composer who has been unjustly forgotten by history and who deserves to  be rediscovered.

“Komitas: A Canadian Tribute”, an ambitious classical concert, will take place at the prestigious Koerner Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music on Friday, October 25. As its title suggests, the concert is co-presented by two Canadian institutions, Amici Chamber Ensemble and the Royal Conservatory of Music, and involves an impressive Canadian cast: the Elmer Iseler Singers, one of the best Canadian choirs, that has sung Armenian programs numerous times before, the much beloved world renowned baritone Russel Braun who too has appeared in a Komitas program with the Amici Chamber Ensemble in 2010, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, and the Young Voices of Toronto, guest violinist Mark Fewer and guest violist Barry Shiffman. All these guests join the core members of the Amici Chamber Ensemble, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, cellist David Hetherington and pianist Serouj Kradjian. Masterminded by pianist/composer Kradjian, this concert also includes soprano Lynn Anush Isnar, and dancers from Hamazkayin Toronto “Erepuni” Dance Ensemble. The event is generously supported by three major Armenian institutions: the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), Canadian Armenian Association for the Performing Arts (CAAPA), and the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society.

Every single concert of the Amici Chamber Ensemble is a revelation, a fascinating journey of discovery of a composer or a musical style or time period. The upcoming Komitas concert will be no exception, as the musical program will unfold in the form of a narrative of the musician’s life and the Armenian rural environment that nurtured his music. Moreover, in this anniversary year, the Toronto concert might well be the biggest large-scale celebration concert worldwide outside of Armenia, performed almost entirely by non-Armenian artists. (See Kradjian’s interview in this same issue).

150 years after Komitas’ birth, the Armenian reality has changed dramatically, and so has the people’s way of making music. While still attached to their roots, Armenians living in the diaspora have integrated in various cultures, and their music reflects the fusion of their heritage with the local musical expressions. Levon Ishkhanian, a Canadian-Armenian jazz guitarist and PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at York University, is one of the best representatives of this trend: profoundly attached to his Armenian roots, very comfortable both in jazz and Middle Eastern music, Ishkhanian will pay tribute to Komitas at the Jazz Bistro in downtown Toronto, on November 8, 9 and 10. Titled “JAZZ ARMENIA by Levon Ishkhanian and Friends”, the concert will feature, in the musician’s own words, “a multitude of guests on Eastern and Western instruments (duduk, Kemanche…), a union of antiquity and contemporary, and art installations  – performing the music of Komitas and his contemporaries.”  (See Levon Ishkhanian’s interview in this same issue)

The 150th anniversary celebrations in Toronto will not end with the year 2019. Sinfonia Toronto and its conductor, Maestro Nurhan Arman have planned a Komitas celebration on February 22, 2020 with guest violinist Nuné Melik and mezzo soprano Beste Kalender at the Meridian Art Centre. Plans for future concerts presenting Komitas and other Armenian composers to the Canadian audience are in the works, and will be discussed as they shape up. It is every Armenian musician’s hope that the series of concerts that are starting with this major anniversary will disseminate the music of Komitas among an increasingly wider audience, bringing him back onto the international stage where he had drawn so much admiration in his lifetime, before the World War I and the Armenian genocide silenced his voice.