Music to His Ears
Orchestra Head Luxuriates in Lean Times
By Robert G. Kaiser
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 27, 1999; Page G06

MOSCOW----One of the least likely and most enthusiastic participants in Moscow's cultural revival is an American named Constantine Orbelian, a native of San Francisco who has been music director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra since 1991. As far as Orbelian is concerned, this is the ideal location for making music.

"There's no place like it in the world," he said in an interview in the French delicatessen on the ground floor of the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall here, while his orchestra rehearsed under a guest conductor upstairs. "You just don't find the monetary attitude toward everything, as you do in the West. It's life for art, really...What a great place to be!"

Orbelian grew up in California, the son of an Armenian father and a Russian mother, both displaced by World War II. Russian was the language at home. Precociously talented, Constantine made his debut as a pianist with the San Francisco Symphony when he was 11, in 1967. In 1990 he gave a concert with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra just months before its director dropped dead. The musicians voted to ask Orbelian to become their new director, and the Soviet Ministry of Culture, still in charge of such matters at the time, agreed. Orbelian signed on just as the Soviet Union was about to finally collapse.

The Chamber Orchestra had a distinguished history but faced difficult prospects after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Orbelian has reshaped the orchestra with six new musicians, helped revive its fame and brought it a measure of prosperity. "The good Russian orchestras are the ones who can feed their players," he said, not disguising his own pride at being able to do so.

The ensemble of 25 musicians has to travel about five months a year to earn enough money to maintain its musicians with salaries the equivalent of $7,000 to $10,000 a year. These are world-class performers, easily the equal of National Symphony Orchestra players who earn $80,000 or more a year.

When he first started in Moscow, he recalled, he used to worry about scheduling too much travel, or asking the orchestra to rehearse too many hours a week. "They have a life, too, I said to myself," Orbelian said, "but then I realized that this was their life." He stopped apologizing for the schedule. "There's the luxury of time here," he said. "We take lots of time" with rehearsals and preparations.

Orbelian and his wife, violinist Maria Safariants, have organized the "Palaces of St. Petersburg" festival of chamber music, which features concerts in the magnificent, lavishly restored palaces of the former Russian capital on the Gulf of Finland. The festival runs from late May to mid-June. He and the orchestra give 80 to 100 concerts outside of Russia every year. Their basic support from the Ministry of Culture in Moscow, which includes tiny salaries, rehearsal space and access to the government collection of fine instruments, requires them only to give eight concerts a year in Moscow.

Their fans buy season tickets for those eight concerts without knowing the dates they will take place, Orbelian said. He schedules them throughout the concert season, from September to May, around better-paying foreign dates. This is one aspect of what he describes as "total artistic freedom."

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

 

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