In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Komitas did for Armenian music what Kodaly and Bartok did for Hungarian music—and what Alan Lomax did some years later for American and British folk music. An Armenian priest, musician, and early pioneer in ethnomusicology, Komitas traveled throughout Armenia and the surrounding region, collecting thousands of folk songs and transcribing and arranging them for choirs he conducted throughout Europe. He composed music combining his country’s unique folk and liturgical music (primarily homophonic—single melodic lines, like Gregorian chants) with Western classical forms and harmonic structures to create Armenia’s first classical music.
Komitas’s timing could not have been more fortunate—or more tragic—coming as it did just a few years before the 1915 Armenian Genocide. He was one of the first victims when he was deported from the Ottoman Empire, along with several hundred other intellectuals and community leaders. Unlike most, he survived, but more than half of the 3,000 songs he collected were lost, and his health was so severely compromised that he never was able to resume his work.
Komitas was born in 1869, and during this 150th anniversary of his birth, there are concerts honoring his memory throughout Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Locally, Armenian-born violinist Henrik Karapetyan will present a program of Komitas-related music at the Kerrytown Concert House on November 2. Along with pianist Xavier Suarez, Karapetyan will perform music Komitas collected and composed, as well as medieval Armenian liturgical music and compositions by twentieth-century Armenian composers such as Aram Khachaturian.
Karapetyan holds a 2010 doctorate from the U-M and is one of our area’s most flexible and wide-ranging musicians. A member of the Michigan Opera Theater Orchestra, he also plays klezmer with Klezmephonic, world music with the Dave Sharp Worlds Quartet, and a variety of other styles. He brings a rich palette of sonic colors, full command of a sizeable repertoire of bowing techniques, and a sumptuous singing tone to whatever he plays, yet he also makes clear and scholarly appropriate distinctions between the styles in which he performs. He doesn’t sound like a classical player when he plays klezmer or Balkan when he plays Baroque.
But the Armenian music in this concert—much of which Karapetyan first heard at his mother’s knee—is perhaps closest to his heart. He will conclude the evening with a famous Armenian lullaby, “Ari Im Sokhak” (“Come, Dear Nightingale”), which he certainly heard his mother sing to him when he was a child. So, it is only fitting that his mother, soprano Svetlana Sahakyan, a forty-one-year veteran of the Armenian State Academic Choir—with which she’s performed in concert halls throughout Europe and the U.S.—will join Karapetyan and Suarez on that song and others.