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Gypsy-inspired Afternoon at Stratford Summer Music with Bayrakdarian, Kortgaard, and Fewer

Robert Kortgaard (piano) and Mark Fewer (violin); Photo credit: Scott Wishart

​​by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
oronto ON August 11th 2019

Isabel Bayrakdarian is a formidable, expressive soprano. Her voice is full, vibrant, resonant, she has a wide range of tonal colours, and her diction is flawless.  On Friday afternoon at the Avondale United Church in Stratford, all of those abilities and talents were employed in the service of a program of mostly Romany (‘gypsy’) inspired music.  Bayrakdarian performed alongside Robert Kortgaard (piano) and Mark Fewer (violinist and the artistic director of the festival).

The program started with a strong performance of Johannes Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder op. 103, originally written for four-voice choir and arranged by the composer himself for voice and piano.

The acoustics of the church turned out to be somewhat of a challenge for the artists in terms of balancing the piano with and against the voice and violin. Pianist Gerald Moore wrote two books that are widely read:  The Unashamed Accompanist (today we say ‘collaborative pianist’) and Am I Too Loud? The last is frequently a vexing question. As an acoustic environment, it would seem that the acoustics of the church, with all of its uninterrupted, flat wooden surfaces, reverberate too much for a piano. When the acoustic of a building is off, the musicians may have trouble knowing how much (or in this case how little) sound they are actually producing. 

After Dvorák’s In Folk Tone, op. 73 came the same composer’s Gypsy Songs, op. 55, in the premiere of an imaginative, well designed arrangement for voice, piano, and violin by John Greer. ‘Struna naladena’ (The string is tuned) was lively and exciting. The very high register of the violin was featured to good effect in ‘Songs my mother taught me.’

After intermission, Bayrakdarian surprised us with an additional song; she sang a fine Carmen --the rich, veiled tone of her lower range especially appealing and expressive. There was another premiere of an arrangement, this time by Peter Tiefenbach of Liszt’s Die drei Zigeuner S 320, for piano, violin, and voice.  The arrangement juxtaposed the performers in interesting and effective ways, but the piano, again well played, was too much in the background to have the intended effect.

Isabel Bayrakdarian; Photo credit: Scott Wishart

Fewer and Kortgaard gave a sensitive, idiomatic performance of Pablo de Sarsate’s Zigeunerweisen. The audience was very pleased with the South American tangos by Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla that closed the program; especially ‘Por una Cabeza’, well known from the films in which it is featured (Schindler’s List, Scent of a Woman) and ‘La Cumparsita’ made popular by the musical Hernando’s Hideaway.

All in all, this was an excellent concert in a festival that is well worth attending. The Stratford Summer Music festival is here to stay, and as I’m sure the organizers and artists are aware, a better acoustical solution would be ideal.