B I O G R A P H Y
The brilliant pianist and conductor Constantine Orbelian is the first American ever to become music director of an ensemble in Russia. His appointment in 1991 as Music Director of the celebrated Moscow Chamber Orchestra was a breakthrough event, and came in the midst of Orbelian's successful career as a concert pianist. In September, 2000, Orbelian was named Permanent Guest Conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic, putting him in a unique leadership position with not only Moscow's outstanding chamber orchestra but also its most illustrious symphony orchestra. In January, 2004 President Putin awarded Orbelian the coveted title "Honored Artist of Russia," a title never before bestowed on a non-Russian citizen.
"Constantine Orbelian stands astride two great societies," Willam Zagorsky noted recently in Fanfare, "and finds and promotes synergistic harmony from the best of each." As founding Music Director of the Philharmonia of Russia, Orbelian has brought together Russia's outstanding players to form the "creme de la creme" symphonic ensemble heard on a number of his recordings. Maestro Orbelian's ambitious new series of recordings on Delos is indicative of the scope of his current musical activities and includes, as of this writing, 18 recordings with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and nine with the Philharmonia. The acclaimed series, ranging in repertoire from Handel to Schnittke, inspires comments such as The Audio Critic's: "Orbelian has star quality, and his orchestra plays with passion and precision." In addition to orchestral music, Maestro Orbelian has been creating a remarkable collection of new operatic recordings with some of the most brilliant opera stars of our time. Opera News calls him "the singer's dream collaborator," and has commented that he conducts vocal repertoire "with the sensitivity of a lieder pianist." Among Maestro Orbelian's recent concert appearances are collaborations with Ewa Podles, Roberto Alagna, Galina Gorchakova and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
Born in San Francisco to Russian and Armenian emigre parents, Constantine Orbelian made his debut as a pianist with the San Francisco Symphony at the age of 11, and in his early teens he went to the Soviet Union on a music scholarship. After graduating from Juilliard in New York, Orbelian embarked on a career as a piano virtuoso that included appearances with the Symphony Orchestras of Boston, Detroit, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, the Moscow Philharmonic, Scottish National and Russian State Symphony Orchestras, the Moscow Virtuosi, the Budapest Chamber Orchestra among many others. His recording of the Khachaturian piano concerto won "Best Concerto Recording of the Year" award in the United Kingdom.
Since the blossoming of his conducting career, Constantine Orbelian has conducted in the most prestigious concert halls of Europe and America, including the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Frankfurter "Alte Oper," the Schauspielhaus in Berlin, Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the Salle Pleyel and Theatre Champs Elysees in Paris, Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall in New York, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and the Kremlin Palace in Moscow. Maestro Orbelian's extensive international tours as conductor include concerts in France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Finland, Sweden, Korea, Japan, South Africa, South America, Canada and the United States. He conducts 40 concerts each season in Russia, including a 10-concert sold-out subscription series with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in the Great Hall of Moscow's renowned Tchaikovsky Conservatory.
The 2003-04 season finds Maestro Orbelian conducting a series of concerts in Moscow's New Hall, as well as concerts in Munich, Prague, Istanbul, London's Barbican and Carnegie Hall, the latter New York's only Khachaturian Centennial concert. His U.S. tours with the MCO traverse the U.S. in fall, winter and spring of the 2003-04 season, the spring tour featuring baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
On January 16, 2004, Orbelian, Hvorostovsky and the St. Petersburg Symphony presented an historic program for survivors of the Siege of Leningrad, including new arrangements of songs from the World War II era recorded by Orbelian and Hvorostovsky for the Delos album "Where Are You, My Brothers? --Songs of the War Years." Hvorostovsky, Orbelian and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra performed the same program in the spring of 2003 for 6,000 Muscovites at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow, the telecast of which was seen on Russian Television by over 90 million viewers.
Constantine Orbelian is Founder and Music Director of the annual Palaces of St. Petersburg International Music Festival, a three-week event featuring concerts in many of St. Petersburg's magnificent, lavishly restored palaces. He also founded Moscow's unique concert series, "Musical Treasures at the Museums of the Kremlin." He is in charge of the Music Program for the Stanford University Overseas Campus in Moscow.
In December, 2000, Maestro Orbelian was inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences of St. Petersburg, an honor he shares with only one other conductor -- Valery Gergiev. In May, 2001, he was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, an award given to immigrants, or children of immigrants, who have made outstanding contributions to the United States.
In a more personal sphere, Constantine has completed the three-generation cycle of his family's odyssey beginning in their native Russia and Armenia. His grandfather, Agaparon Orbelian, was arrested and executed in the Lubianka as a revolutionary "enemy of the people" during Stalin's annihilation of Communist party members in the 1930s. Constantine's grandmother was imprisoned for eight years in a gulag for wives of "enemies of the people." When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, Constantine's father, Harry, who had been an outcast since the arrest of his parents when he was a teenager, was drafted into the Russian army to fight for his country. That same year, he was captured by the Germans and spent four years in a German prison camp, owing his life to the fact that he spoke German and could function as a translator. Constantine's mother, Vera, grew up in the Ukraine, and for a brief time realized her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. But during the Nazi invasion she was taken from her home and forced to work in prisoner-of war camps.
Vera and Harry, who met in a displaced persons camp in Germany, emigrated to the U.S. separately, but eventually settled in San Francisco. Harry got a job as a janitor at Gump's, where in the next two years he worked his way up to a position as Vice President. Harry's younger brother, Konstantin, who was only 11 when the two boys were cast out on the street upon the arrest of their parents, was a talented pianist who managed to get a job playing the piano in the circus at that tender age. He eventually became a leading composer of popular songs and film scores in Russia.
During the years after Constantine's graduation from Juilliard, while he was touring as a concert pianist, he performed and recorded as guest soloist with the legendary Moscow Chamber Orchestra. He was on tour in Finland in 1990 when he received an unexpected phone call. The MCO's Music Director, Andre Korsakoff, had died suddenly of a heart attack, and the Orchestra was inviting Constantine to become its Music Director. It was the first time that the Ministry of Culture had ever invited a foreigner to lead a Russian orchestra. Constantine thought about it "for about five minutes," as he tells it now, and accepted. "Russia was a musical mecca," he recalls, "and for me to be invited to come and head this wonderful orchestra was, I thought, a great coup for American musicians. I had to do it --and not only for myself."
It was to be a dynamic combination. Language was not a problem, since he had spoken Russian at home with his parents, and also with his Russian piano teachers at Juilliard. He brought to the Orchestra his American attitudes and leadership style, and relished the group's approaches to playing. They rehearse much more than the average professional orchestra in U.S., and they have a seriousness of purpose that Constantine finds refreshing. "They're doing it for the sake of the music," he said, "because it's obviously not for the money." As a State-supported orchestra, the players receive the same salary that they did before the devaluation of the ruble --now worth about $30 per month. Constantine believes that the special sound the players produce is inseparable from the traumatic history of the Russian people. "It's a special sound we get from those stringed instruments," he says. "There's something quite poignant about what they produce. It's touching. It's gorgeous."
There has been much economic hardship in Russia following the demise of the Soviet Union. "I find that on a cultural level, the greater the problems, the more people reach out to the arts for their souls," Constantine says. "In the concert hall, experiencing great and timeless music, they can get away from the turmoil and difficulties of the outside world."
© 2004 Moscow Chamber Orchestra.