St. Vartan Cathedral was aglow on Friday, December 6, with a festive concert of spiritual and folk music by Gomidas Vartabed, featuring the renowned Gomidas Choir.
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“The voice of Gomidas is the undisguised heartbeat of the Armenian people.”
Those are the words of one of the most ardent students of the beloved priest-musician, who preserved, shaped, and defined our ancient musical history.
New York’s St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral was aglow on Friday, December 6, with festive spiritual and folk music by the revered master, during a concert by the Gomidas Choir.
The evening went forward under the auspices of Bishop Daniel, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.
The Gomidas Choir celebrated its 61st anniversary with a memorable concert dedicated to the 150th anniversary of Gomidas’ birth. Before a packed audience, artistic director Kris Kalfayan (who has conducted the choir for 38 years) led the current roster of dedicated volunteer choir singers in a program of Gomidas masterpieces.
Solemnity and Joy
Following the Hayr Mer, the concert of Gomidas settings and compositions began with the youngest member of the choir, Andrew Varujan Yenicag, singing the Hymn of the “Washing of the Feet” service (Aysor Ganknetzav). Yenicag is the grandson of longtime Gomidas Choir member Varoujan Arslanian.
Several meditative Christmas hymns followed, including the heart-breaking “Lament Over Judas” (Sird Im Sasani), the soulful “O Amazing Mystery” (Ov Zarmanali), and the majestic “Sanctus” (Sourp Sourp).
In a contrasting mood, the program shifted to songs of joy and celebration, including “King of Goodness” (Takavor Parov), and “En Teezan.”
The New Docta Ensemble took the crowd into the vibrant atmosphere of the Armenian villages with such standards as “Song of the Partridge” (Gakavi Yerkuh), the soulful “The Crane” (Groong) dedicated to the national bird of Armenia, and “It’s Spring” (Karoun Eh).
The ensemble, co-founded in 2013 by singer Solange Merdinian, violinist Sami Merdinian, and cellist Yves Dharamraj, features a group of classical musicians who perform in live concerts to “inspire children of all backgrounds to nurture the next generation of musical talent, and to build cultural bridges.” Past members Suliman Tekalli (on violin) and Angela Pickett (on viola) joined in this performance.
The song of farm labor and its accomplishments “Song of Threshing” (Gali Yerk) was sung with joyous understanding by Samuel White. Solange Merdinian offered a lilting “Oror”: a tender song to lull an infant to sleep.
Zevart Balikjian, with heartfelt passion, shared Baruyr Sevag’s “Unsilenceable Belfry,” a powerful poetic tribute to Gomidas which she had translated. She brought many in the audience to tears as she recited the verse:
“You are the sacred pool that purified our souls, a priest of our lyrical poems, magus of our Armenian notes: Our constantly and permanently awake belfry that will never cease to ring.”
A “Jazzical” Revelation
Two of the most renowned Armenian composers, Aram Khachaturian and Alan Hovhaness, stated that the “foundation of Armenian music rests with Gomidas.” Indeed, no one has evoked the raw beauty of Armenian village life like Gomidas, whose legacy will live on for the ages.
His adaptability to all styles of music was exemplified in an amazing segment of the concert featuring acclaimed pianist, producer, and arranger Joel A. Martin.
Martin, who has collaborated with such luminaries as Broadway’s Alan Menken and the Metropolitan Opera’s Kathleen Battle, presented a pianistic evocation of Gomidas’ folk music, titled “Jazzical Gomidas: Fire of Passion.” The December 6 concert marked its world premiere.
In a nuanced performance which garnered a standing ovation, Martin seamlessly connected several Gomidas folk melodies with superb artistry and understanding. His innovative blending of traditional and jazz styles is certain to attract a wider audience to the incomparable genius of Gomidas.
(Click here to view a video clip of Joel Martin’s performance.)
One of Gomidas most soul-searing and universal songs, “Homeless” (Andouni), was sung by Alvard Mayilyan with raw powerful emotion. Ruthann Turekian softly sang “Come Breeze” (Hov Arek)—with both singers accompanied by Martin.
An Awesome Power of Music
Among the concert soloists were Alyne Corrigan, Milagros Albrecht, Anoush Givelekian, Berdj Feredjian, Garabed Koroglu, and Talar Minoyan.
A joyous “Hoy Nazanim,” accompanied by Joel Martin and the New Docta Ensemble, concluded the inspirational Christmas concert, compelling the listeners to rise in a sustained ovation for the Gomidas Choir, its talented and hard-working director Kris Kalfayan, and all the participants.
In his message, Bishop Daniel called the concert “exuberant,” expressing his appreciation to all the who took part in the special event.
“Tonight,” he stated enthusiastically, “we have experienced an awesome power of music, stirring us at the deepest level, just as the church lifts us to our highest level. Gomidas, the unsurpassed priest, has given us the possibility to be agents of that power.”
The concert was also a time to recall the devoted founders of the choir, including Isahag Aprahamian, Dr. Ara Bohcalian, and Onnig Hepshen—all of whom were members of the Gomidas Choir in its birthplace of Istanbul.
During a splendid post-concert reception in Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium, 99-year-old Dikran Cherchian—who has sung with the Gomidas Choir for 64 years—declared that Samuel White’s rendition of “Gali Yerk” was “heavenly.” Mr. Cherchian noted that “it is a very difficult piece, and one that I have always loved.”
Jazz impresario Joel Martin—who is planning a world tour for his “Jazzical Gomidas” project—revealed to this writer that “the pain and joy of Gomidas’ earthiness” spoke powerfully to him as an African-American. “It tethered me to the ground, calming me, and giving me joy and the simplicity of life.”
“The music of Gomidas is for everybody,” he added. “If it touched me so deeply, then it will touch someone else. It’s not just a music thing: it’s a life thing. And it’s a joy to bring it to the world.”
Click here to view a gallery of photos.
Click here to view video clips and photos from the concert on the Gomidas Choir Facebook page.
By Florence Avakian