Arts & Events

Armenian Folk Singer Hasmik Harutyunyan Performs with Kitka

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday October 19, 2019 - 06:32:00 PM

In a series of concerts October 17-19 in Rohnert Park, Oakland, and San Jose, renowned Armenian folk singer Hasmik Harutyunyan teamed up with the Oakland-based women’s choral ensemble Kitka. I attended the Friday, October 18, concert in Oakland’s St. Vartan Armenian Church. The program was entitled “Gorani: Love Songs to Lost Homelands.” Between 1915 and 1923, Armenians lost much of their several thousand year-old homeland when the Turks committed genocide on the Armenian population, driving survivors into the Armenian diaspora. This October 18 concert in Oakland’s St. Vartan Armenian Church thus presented a celebration of the resilience of the Armenian diaspora. It also offered Armenian-Americans the opportunity to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their revered national composer, Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935, generally referred to simply as Komitas), who gathered centuries-old Armenian folk songs and composed his own music based on these folk traditions. Some of the folk songs Komitas transcribed were featured on this concert program. 

The concert opened with a Gorani medley sung by the Kitka ensemble, with various members taking solos over a humming vocal drone. An early highlight of the concert was the Greek song, “Aghni Parthene,” composed by St. Nektarios of Aegina (1846-1920). When I asked Shira Cion, Kitka’s Executive Artistic Director, after the concert whether this beautiful polyphonic Greek song had any special relation to the Armenian diaspora, she said, “No. It’s just a hymn to the Virgin; and we thought it fit in well with the iconic image of the Virgin Mary in this St. Vartan Church.” Generally, the songs involving Hasmik Harutyunyan with the Kitka choral ensemble were the most complex and satisfying of the first half of the concert. Hasmik generally took the lead, singing the opening verses, then was joined by the Kitka ensemble. In these pieces, Hasmik’s mezzo-soprano was brilliantly set off against the various female registers of the Kitka soloists. However, when Hasmik Harutyunyan sang a cappella solos in a medley of lullabies, things became quite monotonous. As my seat-mate put it, “By the third lullaby I was about to nod off myself.” However, the first half of the concert came to a rousing close with another of the program’s highlights , the song “Sand Ktsetsim,” — a lively traditional threshing song from Armenia’s Shatakh region.  

After intermission, Kitka performed two pagan Latvian chants. Then Hasmik Harutyunyan joined with Kitka in another highlight, the Armenian song “Yerkinkn Ampel E,” transcribed by Komitas, and a second piece transcribed by Komitas, “Hoy Nazan,” that offered beautiful harmonies. Then followed work songs in praise of sturdy oxen and robust fisherman who bring in the Black Sea catch. More Armenian lullabies were heard. Then came a Bulgarian song performed by Kitka, featuring the characteristic metallic Slavic soprano voice and many thrilling shouts of encouragement from the chorus. The final medley of the program involved Armenian dance tunes sung by Hasmik Harutyunyan and Kitka. A lovely encore was offered, a work by a student of Komitas, Parsegh Kanachian, who composed the mellifluous lullaby “Koon Yeghir Balas.”  

After the concert, a reception was held which offered the audience an opportunity to speak to many of the singers. Armenian hospitality was, as always, munificent, with delicious pastries served, including superb baklava and pistachio pastries. In short, an inspiring evening of music and Armenian culture!