Passion and Tears: Isabel Bayrakdarian sings Spanish songs and the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal sings the Lamentations of Jeremiah at the Elora Festival
The Elora Gorge
Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON July 14th 2018
I might as well admit that as a very young man I had a crush on soprano Victoria de los Angeles. My favourite recording of hers was the last one, of a concert she gave at Hunter College, featuring Spanish songs. I have met other men my age who were similarly enamored of her gorgeous voice (and truth be told she was not hard on the eyes), but in the end we all came to accept that we were too young for her.
The young, exciting, coloratura operatic soprano Isabel Baykardian, who has sung roles at the Met, the Chicago Lyric Opera, London’s Royal Opera House, the Canadian Opera Company, and the Los Angeles Opera, gave a powerful, expressive performance of Spanish songs today. She began with Manuel de Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs, and continued with pieces by Obradors, including at least one that I remember from the Hunter College recital recording, the difference being that Bayrakdarian, with her rich, voluminous voice, velvety-dusky lower range, strong, projecting, flowing upper range, sings it even better than de los Angeles did.
St. John’s Church was packed, and we were seated in the overflow area, in the choir, perhaps ten feet from the altar. Arthur remarked that seats were not ideal for the reviewer, because the piano was between us and the singer, and we were not hearing the true balance. Still Bayrakdarian’s vocal qualities were clearly in evidence. Then something special happened. She came close to the altar, right in front of me, to sing one of the songs. Suddenly I had the best seat in the city. Thank you! My goodness! What a voice!
Arthur, watching me keenly, asked if I was all right. ‘I’m not going to embarrass myself by asking her out. It would certainly be unprofessional, but that’s not the reason; I’m giving this crush up right now because, as we both know, I’m just too old for her’, I replied. ‘And what a voice!’
Pianist Robert Kortgaard played the difficult accompaniments passionately. I remarked that when I accompany sopranos I open the piano on the small stick and he played it wide open with the long stick. I asked if this was because of the substance of Bayrakdarian’s voice. He said he preferred to play on the long stick and keep his dynamics down. I nodded. I have tried that a few times, but as my blood, boiling from the vocal heat of the soprano, reaches my head, I find it difficult to control the dynamics, so the short stick works better for me.
Bayrakdarian sang tango songs that are more familiar to audiences in their instrumental versions, and she performed numbers from comic operettas. She answered the standing ovation with an encore.
I asked the soprano if she would hate me if I wrote that she sings better than Victoria de los Angeles. She made me repeat the question. ‘I am in awe of her’, she answered. ‘No way do I sing better’. Yes way, these ears may be somewhere north of sixty, but you have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool them.
Since the choir did not afford me a good angle for a photo, the performers allowed me to be photographed with them. Other performers reading this report might take Bayrakdarian’s generosity in this as an example to be emulated. By the way Kortgaard is in the centre of the photo; I am the striking man on the far right.
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and pianist Robert Kortgaard
Photo credit: www.bayrakdarian.com and Ian Varty
Isabel Baykardian, Robert Kortgaard and Paul Merkley
Let there be no doubts that a day in Elora at the festival is worth the trip. Wonderful music, beautiful scenery, and a charming town are all yours for a short, picturesque drive in the country. What more does one want? I will withhold judgement until the end of the summer music season, but the Elora Festival may well be rural Ontario at its very best, and that is saying something!
Close friends urged me not to make the trip alone. Elora’s situation, with its beautiful gorge, is romantic, and they said I ought to ask Samantha to accompany me, Samantha being their code name for the hypothetical, non-existent romantic partner this widower is not looking for. Instead I went with my friend Arthur, retired research scientist and, like me, a longtime lover of beautiful voices, so we two francophiles celebrated the ‘quatorze juillet’ in fine fashion.
If you want to eat lunch at the Elora Inn, with its unbeatable view of the gorge, excellent service, and visually imaginative cuisine, it is best to arrive a bit early, so that you can get one of the tables in the extension that overlooks the gorge with floor to ceiling windows. The vanilla cheesecake made to look like fried eggs is a stunning dessert. The Gorge special coffee with grated nutmeg is an enticing drink (if you are my coach or my ever-watchful friend, you should know that Arthur consumed them both). There are of course many other places to lunch or dine in Elora, Arthur found a good gelateria and ate something there as well. I can’t figure out where he puts it all.
After sitting on some Adironack chairs in a park in the centre of town, and watching Arthur eat ice cream, we returned to the church for the performance by the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal. This time we were seated six rows back in the nave, and the acoustics of the church proved to be excellent.
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal
Photo credit: http://smamontreal.ca/
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The program consisted of settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, religious texts performed on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, most of them from the 16th century. The ensemble is the size of a chamber choir, eight men, five women, plus the director.
Their vocal production and choral approach are in the traditions of the Church of England choirs, which was certainly appropriate for the Lamentation by Vaughan Williams, with its registral writing and parallel harmonies. The settings by Tallis were beautifully performed, the diction clear, the tempi apt (director Andrew McAnerney held to the timing of the ‘tactus’, which is to say his heart beat, and the effect was serene and expressive), the voices lacking vibrato, and the tuning so precise that the voices resonated at the cadences.
One of the impressive facets of the performance was the precise co-ordination of the ensemble, the uniformity of tone, diction, and expression which allowed so many features of the music to come out. With the ranges set out from the basses on our right to the highest soprano on our left, every significant voice entry took on special significance. The solo sections, which cast individual voices into sharp relief, highlighted certain passages. Altogether it was a remarkable soundscape.
Overall the performance was very well prepared, disciplined, cleanly executed, and moving. Overall I judge this to be a red-letter day. ‘This is really living’, Arthur said, for the third time today. And I agree.