S A N ...F R A N C I S C O ...C H R O N I C L E

Homecoming for Moscow conductor S.F.-born Orbelian brings orchestra to bay

Phil Ittner, Chronicle Foreign Service
Friday, September 7, 2001

Moscow -- When the Moscow Chamber Orchestra tours the United States this month, it will be be a homecoming for its conductor, Constantine Orbelian, a native of San Francisco and the first American to lead a state-sponsored orchestra in Russia.

"I love coming back to the Bay Area," said Orbelian, who will lead the orchestra in a concert in Rohnert Park on Tuesday. "There's nothing like coming back home, and I'm glad I can bring my musicians back with me to my birthplace to show what we've been doing. This last year has brought such tremendous fame to the orchestra, with a lot of wonderful reviews."

Orbelian's Armenian and Russian parents left the Soviet Union after being held as prisoners of war during World War II. They found a home in San Francisco, where Orbelian's father worked first as a janitor before becoming a senior executive in the same company. Orbelian says he grew up with a love for music and learned from an early age that success as a musician is attainable with perseverance and hard work. He studied at Juilliard before beginning a career as a concert pianist.


When the Cold War began to wind down, Orbelian traveled to Moscow to perform with the orchestra. Six weeks later the conductor died. The orchestra's musicians petitioned the State Ministry of Culture to allow a foreigner to lead them. In a unique decision, the ministry agreed. That was 10 years ago. Since then Orbelian has led the group to international fame and, perhaps equally important, relative fortune.

Russia's economic problems make it difficult for the arts there, especially for a state-sponsored organization like the orchestra. The 25 musicians in the group each receive less than $30 a month. Without international recordings or tours it would be almost impossible to survive.

Using his contacts in the West, Orbelian put the orchestra on the fast track. They now tour abroad for 80 to 90 concerts a year, more than any other Russian orchestra. They are signed to record with Delos International in Los Angeles. And they have won accolades throughout the world.

Orbelian is quick to note that the praise is justified because of the wealth of ability he can draw upon in Russia. He says he truly enjoys showing off the talents of his musicians.

"I do that all the time -- it's what I love to do. . . . It's my main premise because I'm very proud of what they can do. We have probably some of the best string players in Russia -- a super flutist, great oboists, great horn players -- just a great group of very dedicated musicians," he said.

The orchestra starts its American tour Tuesday. . It then goes to Carmel before heading to the South and the East Coast. The varied repertoire includes Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Boccherini and Schnittke, among many others.

On the East Coast the orchestra will be joined by violinist Massimo Quarta, who will perform what Orbelian calls "the most unique and wonderful version of Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' I've ever heard."


West Coast audiences will hear Alfred Schnittke's Concerto for Piano and Strings, of which Orbelian is equally proud. Several years ago the orchestra premiered it at Carnegie Hall in New York, and this year it recorded the piece in Marin at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. Mixing the high-tech capabilities of the West with the rich cultural history of Russia creates a hybrid result that many say allows Orbelian and the orchestra to present the best of both worlds.

"Musicians here aren't so unionized (as they are in the West). I've never seen a performer here look at his watch during practice, and that counts for something," said Carol Rosenberg, Delos' vice president in charge of A&R.

Orbelian's own talents haven't gone unnoticed.

"We were just so impressed with Constantine," said Delos founder Amelia Haygood during a visit to Moscow to meet with the orchestral leader. "He doesn't conduct for the audience, he doesn't go through an awful lot of choreography. He uses big gestures sometimes if it's needed, but it's mostly conveyed through his eyes and his face for the benefit of the musicians. And when he conducts you can really hear it -- they play as one. And that gets across."

As for Orbelian, he just hopes that American audiences will get a chance to enjoy some fine Russian musicians and have an opportunity to escape from bustle of modern American life.

"I want them to come with open minds and open hearts and have a tremendous emotional experience," he said. "It's something that a lot of people in the States lack, I think -- a real emotional and spiritual experience. I don't mean Transcendental Meditation and stuff, I just mean something that is going to make you have a tear in your eye if it happens; something that will make you think and feel -- just to get away from your phones and your computers and everything else for a two-hour period of time and immerse yourself in great music."



Copyright © 2004 Moscow Chamber Orchestra.