Keep Your Eye On Constantine Orbelian, Pianist

by Lisa Marum

There can't be too many piano students who fly from Armenia to Moscow every weekend in order to take lessons. But to San Francisco native Constantine Orbelian the trek was just another rite of passage on his route to becoming a concert pianist. While speaking of his Armenian father and Russian mother, the young virtuoso explains: "My parents were friendly with Vladimir Ashkenazy, who said his former teacher at the Moscow Conservatory -- Anaida Sumbatian -- was the only person to study with. Since I had a musical scholarship to Armenia at the time, it seemed natural for me to make the weekly trip." As the thirty-year-old pianist, who went on to study at Juilliard with Nadia Reisenberg and privately in New York with Nina Svetlanova, remembers it, "Unlike the other students at the Moscow Conservatory, I didn't have to take political studies - so I had more free time. And as a foreigner I had a mystique. Overall, it was one intense study period!"

How well the studies paid off is evident from the list of orchestras with which Orbelian has been soloist: the Boston Pops, Utah Symphony, Moscow Virtuosi, Budapest Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony, with which he performed when he was eleven. In addition, he has been a frequent guest artist at the Newport, California Bach, San Antonio and Helsinki festivals.

Orbelian also had the signal honor of being the keyboardist whose playing was taped for the stage version of Amadeus. "I even gave Mozart (actor Tim Curry) a piano lesson," he chuckles. "It was an amusing experience. But the playwright, Peter Shaffer, and the director, Peter Hall, went a little overboard with their instructions: 'Play it this way when Salieri plays, this way when Mozart does.' I guess they thought I didn't know about different touches and performing styles."

Between February 2 and March 6, Orbelian returns to Mozart as he tours the country with the Chamber Orchestra of the Auvergne under Jean-Jacques Kantorow in its North American debut with alternating programs of the Mozart Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414, and the Mendelssohn A Minor Piano Concerto. "To my knowledge, the Mendelssohn concerto has never been played in the United States," Orbelian notes. "It's an early one, written when he was fourteen or fifteen, and it's a typically witty, fun piece. But it was hell trying to get the music -- I had to kidnap it from East Germany!"

Following the orchestral dates is a series of recitals in the South and West. Orbelian's mainstays include "lots of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Scarlatti and some Beethoven. That's what is so great about the piano repertoire: It's so gigantic that you don't have to play something you don't really love," the young artist asserts. With his Armenian background he usually programs some Armenian music, as well as a love song encore by his uncle, who is also named Constantine Orbelian and who is "one of the five composers of pop music in the Soviet Union." The younger Orbelian laughs. "I should go into the publishing business -- I've gotten about six hundred requests for copies of my uncle's piece."

Whether he is playing in Paris or in Sidney (Montana), Orbelian tailors his program the same way. "Wherever I am, I'm looking for the same response. If I've conveyed my emotion through that black box and the audience has understood, it makes me happy."

Another source of happiness is playing chamber music with such noted young musicians as violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky and cellists Mischa Maisky and Gary Hoffman. "Before I got together with them, I'd never played chamber music and I felt I should be off in a corner somewhere. But they were so nice about everything," Orbelian reveals. "And when you're not taking lessons anymore, playing chamber music is the way to keep learning and getting feedback."

This fall, Orbelian debuted on disc with Neeme Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra in the Khachaturian Piano Concerto (Chandos 1250/8542, dist. by Harmonia Mundi, U.S.A.). "It seems that everyone has recorded it except an Armenian! The work is full of folky rhythms and the second movement is a folk song. Someone who's lived with this music and knows the words realizes this."

Next on Orbelian's studio schedule (also with Jarvi and the Scottish National) is making the first Western recording of a concerto by Khachaturian's compatriot, Arno Babadjanian. Orbelian is convinced that "Babadjanian was a great, great pianist, similar to Gilels, and what makes him interesting as a composer is the way he combined the old and the new. He intertwined folk roots with a contemporary Gershwinesque jazz-based harmonic background. Babadjanian was much less model than Khachaturian and his harmonies were lusher."

Plans are afoot, too, for Orbelian to record the Rachmaninoff First and Fourth Piano Concertos, as well as for his usual eighty-five or ninety concerts a year. "It's grueling doing all that traipsing around, but I'm glad I have the chance and I would never want to do anything else," he sums up. "Can you imagine if you spent your whole life building up for something and then didn't like it?"



Copyright © 2004 Moscow Chamber Orchestra.