M O S C O W ...M A G A Z I N E

The Music of Fate
Russia's Cultural Ambassadors to the UN50 Festival

by Nikolai Mikhailov

Did you ever wonder what goes through the mind of a conductor as he steps onto the podium, what former passions, what memories pass before his eyes as he raises his baton? Of course there's no way we can ever know, but some artists have such vivid and colorful backgrounds that it's tempting to speculate. Pianist and conductor Constantine Orbelian is such an artist.

On May 8 of this year he will be in San Francisco's Davies Hall, directing the Russian State Academic Chamber Orchestra in a performance of Dmitry Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, dedicated to the victims of World War II. The ensemble, better known in the West as the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, will represent Russia in the city's two-month-long celebration of the founding of the United Nations Organization there 50 years ago. The UN50 festival will feature performances by the London Royal Philharmonic under Vladimir Ashkenazi and by the Lyons Opera, among others.

It is hard to imagine a more appropriate role for Orbelian than as a representative of his parents' birthplace performing in his own native city during a celebration of international understanding. But fate has not always been so kind to the young conductor or to his family.


World War II plays a pivotal role in the history of every member of the Orbelian family over 50. For Constantine's father, Harry, the war was like a curtain separating two different lives, or like the brief dusk of his native Armenia, where the sun drops behind the mountains so rapidly that the brightest day turns to blackest night almost instantaneously.

Harry Orbelian's childhood was sunny and happy. He came from a well-to-do, warm and caring family of four: his parents, himself and his younger brother Constantine. But then, just before the war began, came the night.

Harry's parents belonged to the romantic communist generation of the 1920s, a generation almost completely eradicated during the Stalinist terrors. Orbelian's father was arrested in 1936 and his mother shortly thereafter. Only his mother survived; his father was rehabilitated posthumously. Used to a life as favorites of fortune, Harry and his younger brother Constantine suddenly found themselves among the lowest of the low: their parents had become enemies of the people.

The brothers were forced to leave the city for a village in Nagorno-Karabakh. Eighteen-year-old Harry taught school for a time then joined the Army and went off to fight in the war.

In some ways World War II was a blessing in disguise for young Harry: on the battlefield no one cared who his parents were. No one asked about them as he roamed the forests of Belorussia, not always able to tell whether he was heading for Russian or German forces during the chaos and confusion of the Red Army's 1941 retreat. Nor did Orbelian's family tree matter in the German prison camps of Warsaw, Stettin and Hamburg. It wasn't until after the war that the stigma of being the child of enemies of the people once again cast its shadow over Orbelian's life: shortly after being freed from German imprisonment by allied forces, he found himself stuck in a Russian displaced persons camp.

"I really wanted to see my homeland again," Orbelian recalls, "I lay awake at night thinking about it."

Unfortunately, Orbelian's homeland was a little less keen on seeing him - he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for being the son of enemies of the people and for sitting out the war in a German camp. As hard as it was for Orbelian to give up the idea of going home, give it up he did, and in 1946 he made it to the United States, a country which was to become his home away from home.

During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda loved nothing better than to make fun of the American rags-to-riches success story. It's almost painful to think how much ink was wasted in attempts to debunk this "free world illusion." But facts can be stranger than fiction and Harry Orbelian is living proof that the American Dream can come true. Having arrived in New York with neither money nor connections, he began his conquest of the New World as a stock clerk. Today the 74-year-old Orbelian, former vice president of foreign trade for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, is a multi-millionaire and head of the San Francisco World Trade Council. He counts kings, business moguls and world-renowned artists among his personal friends.

The story of Harry Orbelian's life would make a good novel. The final episode, the one that sums up the book, would be when the hero, after years of tribulation, finally makes it home. Yes, it would be a nice story, except that Orbelian continues to reside in San Francisco. He has, however, renewed his ties with his birthplace.

When the signs of change began to appear in the Soviet Union, Orbelian presented Mikhail Gorbachev a bell engraved with the words: "The bell of glasnost and perestroika." Today he organizes conferences for Russian and American businessmen, arranges trade missions and helps people establish contacts. Orbelian met Gorbachev twice and is proud to have been one of the first Westerners to establish business relations with the Soviet Union.

"People who are busy making money won't be out making war, will they?" he quips.

In 1994 Orbelian received the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations' "Ellis Island Medal of Honor" for exceptional acts of humanitarianism.


The fate of Constantine Orbelian's mother was also shaped by the war. Vera Voznesenskaya was born in Kharkov but was captured and forced into slave labor in Germany in 1943. Voznesenskaya first met Harry Orbelian in a displaced persons camp there. The two were soon separated, but, in a turn of events worthy of Hollywood, they met again in New York and have been together ever since.

Like her husband, Vera Orbelian's heart aches for Russia. The thing that worries her most is that Russians may begin to lose heart. She hopes against hope that people won't give in to despair in the face of the difficult and complex problems facing them today. She is proud of the fact that her son is living and working in Moscow, and that it was his orchestra that was chosen to represent Russia at the UN50 festival. She may be even more proud of the fact that, by organizing foreign tours, her son is helping the orchestra survive despite a complete cut-off of government support for the arts.


In January 1991, shortly after he had taken up the baton for the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Constantine Orbelian was startled when a critic introduced himself as 'the one who wrote about you back in 1958. "Oh," responded the 31-year-old director, "but I've changed since then, don't you think?"

It's not hard to understand the critic's mistake -- Orbelian's uncle Constantine was a well-known composer and performer in the Soviet Union. Even today the name of People's Artist Constantine Orbelian, artistic director of the Armenian State Light Music Orchestra is known throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Constantine and his brother Harry were separated by the war. Fourteen-year-old Constantine, who had studied at the Baku Conservatory's school for musically gifted children, became a pianist and accordion player in the 8th aviation corp's jazz orchestra, while Harry was sent to the western front. After the war Constantine's reputation as a jazz improviser and composer began to grow. Under his direction, Armenian jazz began to make a name for itself on the world music scene in the 1970s.


In 1975 Orbelian's Armenian Orchestra became the first Soviet jazz band to visit America. Local critics were impressed, writing: "Orbelian's Orchestra really understands jazz...His original orchestrations are delightful, on a level with Buddy Herman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and Ted Johnson or Mel Louis..."

Not that things were always easy. As Orbelian once stated in an interview: "Do you think that the repression stopped after my parents were arrested? Think again -- I was reminded constantly of who I was. My fascination with jazz and piano improvisation was made out to be a sign that I'd been infected by 'foreign ideology.' It was as if I were a sort of one-man fifth column. Although I did fight back as best I could."

There are things that you just can't fight, however, especially if you're no longer young. The USSR fell apart and the Armenian Orchestra couldn't afford to travel to Moscow to play any more. Besides, people in Yerevan had things other than music on their minds. Who has time for concerts when there's no electricity and no water? Discouraged by the situation at home, 64-year-old Constantine Orbelian emigrated to San Francisco, where he now lives and composes, three years ago.

But the Armenia that Orbelian knew lives on in his music, music which some day will find its way back to the composer's ravaged, beloved homeland.

Constantine the younger, meanwhile, has already returned to his roots in Russia. In 1991 the Moscow Chamber Orchestra invited him to become its artistic director and conductor.

Born in San Francisco in 1956, Constantine graduated from The Juilliard School of Music with a degree in piano performance. He made his piano debut at the age of 11, appearing with the San Francisco Symphony. Before joining the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Orbelian performed with the world's leading orchestras, giving over 500 concerts in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. Orbelian is the founder of the Saint Petersburg Palaces chamber music festival. In 1988 his recording of Khachaturian's piano concerto, in performance with the Royal Scottish Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi, received the British Music Retailers Association's award for best concerto of the year.

Orbelian's call to Moscow marks the first time a foreigner has been invited to lead a Russian orchestra, not to mention one of such stature. The 1995/96 season will be the orchestra's fortieth, making it one of the oldest chamber orchestras in the world. It was founded in 1956 when violist and conductor Rudolph Barshai brought together Moscow's finest musicians to crate an ensemble which was soon famous for its artistic ability and its professionalism. The ensemble has always attracted the world's best musicians: among others who have played with it are David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Yehudi Menuhin, Svyatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Viktor Tretiakov and Vladimir Spivakov. A number of works have been written for the ensemble, including Dmitry Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony. The orchestra performs over 80 concerts a year, with guest performances around the world. The list of recent tours includes Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Rio de Janiero, Stockholm, Seoul, Helsinki, London and other world capitals.

This is the orchestra that the 35-year-old American pianist Constantine Orbelian took over in 1991. Orbelian is young, handsome, outgoing and energetic. He has great respect for the tradition of his illustrious predecessors and is constantly striving for perfection.

"The Moscow Chamber Orchestra is an excellent ensemble full of talented people," he says. "The musicians are first-class. Many have been invited to join other, no less famous orchestras, but they feel a sense of obligation to the MCO. They literally live and breathe music. They're always trying to improve their work and during rehearsals they devote great attention to every detail, to every stroke of the bow."

Still, with all the discomforts and unpredictableness of life in Moscow, one has to wonder if Orbelian doesn't miss America sometimes. Does Moscow feel like home to him or just another stop-over? Does he like it here?

"Do I like it here? It's fantastic!" he answers. "Our whole life is like one great big tour of course, but my friends in Moscow have set things up for me so well that I don't miss New York at all. I'm always meeting interesting people. And most importantly, I'm seeing first-hand, with my own eyes, the new Russian revolution. It's such an interesting sensation, feeling that you're really a part of History."

Reporters love to ask Orbelian if he feels more like an American, an Armenian or a Russian. "I'm probably more like a citizen of the world," he responds. Which isn't to say that he's turning his back on his roots, on the Russian language and traditions he learned from his mother or the Armenian music of his uncle. Nor is he likely to forget his tragic family history.

If anyone is a world citizen, it is Orbelian. But somehow he seems to come not from today's world or yesterday's world, but from tomorrow's - from a world without borders or wars, a world free of international tensions.

On May 8 Orbelian will raise his baton in San Francisco's Davies Hall and give the downbeat to music that tells the tale of thousands of families like his own, music that sings of the friendship between the Old World and the New, music that is uniquely appropriate for the 50th birthday of an organization dedicated to the overcoming of national barriers and war. Orbelian and the music he helps create are symbols of the new world - their harmonies mirror the harmony of a world at peace with itself.



Copyright © 2004 Moscow Chamber Orchestra.