Theater & Arts

Fresno Philharmonic takes on ambitious choral piece on Armenian genocide

This is world premiere of “Cantata for the Living Martyrs”

• The piece was commissioned by the Armenian Genocide Centennial Fresno Committee

• Be prepared for a massive emotional experience

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The message is blunt:

“This story which cannot be told, I saw with my cruel eyes.”

Thus begins perhaps the Fresno Armenian community’s greatest contribution to the worldwide commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide: an ambitious choral piece for orchestra, choir and soloist.

“Cantata for the Living Martyrs,” composed by Serouj Kradjian, will be performed Saturday, April 25, by the Fresno Philharmonic in a concert titled “Witness and Rebirth: An Armenian Journey.” It features the musical muscle of a full orchestra, soprano soloist Isabel Bayrakdarian (Kradjian’s wife) and 220 singers of the Fresno Master Chorale and the Fresno State Concert Choir on stage. Audiences should be prepared for a massive emotional experience that runs the gamut of human emotions, from revulsion at the atrocities unleashed upon the Armenian people to the cleansing optimism of humanity facing up to the mistakes of the past.

“Fresno will be responsible for giving the world a new work that puts Armenian history in perspective in a way that no one has before,” says Theodore Kuchar, the orchestra’s music director. (The program also includes Khachaturian’s violin concerto with soloist Catherine Manoukian and a collection of a cappella Armenian sacred choral works.)

For Kradjian, who divides his time between Fresno, Santa Barbara and Toronto, the cantata marks a precious opportunity in terms of his music and cultural background.

“My goal was to present the genocide not only as an Armenian tragedy, but a human tragedy,” he says.

The piece was commissioned by the Armenian Genocide Centennial Fresno Committee with the understanding that the Fresno Philharmonic would play the world premiere. The day after the Fresno concert, the orchestra and a choir of nearly 110 singers will travel to San Francisco for a performance at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.

Divided into three movements, the piece begins with “The Dance,” a title that sounds joyous — but quickly turns tragic. Kradjian uses text written by famed Armenian poet Siamanto as a memorial to the victims of a massacre that happened about four years before the genocide. (Siamanto lost his life in the genocide.) This first part of the cantata is about the actual bloodshed of the genocide, and it is related musically in brutal terms.

“The text is very dark, and I wanted to go to the extremes, with violent fortissimos and soft, almost sobbing harmonies to describe the situation,” the composer says. A variety of instrumental and vocal special effects — violins grating, texts shouted and wailed — adds to the impact.

The second movement, “I Bless You,” is about the immediate aftermath of the genocide and hints at a story — the text is based on a memoir by Aram Haigaz — about the forced separation of mother and child. The movement is “bittersweet, heartbreaking, beautiful,” Kradjian says.

The third movement, “Denial & Rebirth,” uses text from an article written by William Saroyan. In it the decree that “There was no genocide” gives way to the theme “I remember and demand.” It ends with Saroyan’s proclamation that no power on Earth could destroy the Armenian race, “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, See if they will not create a new Armenia!”

This is the first time that Saroyan’s ringing words have been put to music, Kradjian says. The music in the third movement is very melodic and anthem-like. In other words: Stick through the sad horrors of the first part of the piece, and you’ll be rewarded with redemption in the end.

Performing a world premiere can be nerve-wracking because no one — not even the composer — has actually heard the piece before the first rehearsal. Last-minute changes are common. (“The ink is dry now, but barely,” Anna Hamre, conductor of the vocal ensembles, says with a wry laugh.) It can also be tremendously exciting.

Kradjian, whose great-grandfathers all died in the genocide, dedicates the piece to his children, Ari and Leah, the “descendants of living martyrs.” He echoes a common story of younger generations: Those who survived never talked about what happened to them. And that fact is key to the title.

“The people lost still live in us,” he says. “But the people who survived were martyrs because they would never recover.”

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