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From NEC to Tchaikovsky Victory: Narek Hakhnazaryan


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On October 16, Boston Chamber Music Society will be opening its 29th season with a special guest, Narek Hakhnazaryan, who will be making his first Boston appearance since winning the Gold Medal in cello in this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition and making many celebratory concerto appearances with major orchestras. At Sanders Theatre beginning at 7:30 the BCMS players will offer an exciting mixed program discussed in detail below. To mark this event BMInt interviewed BCMS Artistic Director Marcus Thompson and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan.

The first interview is with Marcus Thompson:

BMInt: Marcus, I see that cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan will be making his debut with BCMS in your opening concert. This will also be his first Boston appearance following his international triumph! How did you meet him and determine him a good fit for BCMS? 

Marcus Thompson: I’m ashamed to say I actually never met him at NEC where I teach and where he had been an Artist Diploma student of Professor Lawrence Lesser, soloist with one of NEC’s orchestras, and a favorite among the knowledgeable. Later on Narek and I were part of a large number of artists who participated in a twelve-hour marathon chamber music concert at Symphony Space in New York to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Young Concert Artists, Inc. and its founder Susan Wadsworth. Susan is the one with eye for talent. And seeing again many of the people she has helped over the years was really thrilling.

The last piece of the day was the Mendelssohn Octet, in which I played first viola, and Narek, first cello. So, we were sitting right next to each other having to play several important phrases together. After two days of rehearsals and a nice party the following morning, I felt I knew him and his playing enough to invite him to play with BCMS. Of course, I was told by the agency I was too late: Narek had completed his studies, was planning to leave Boston to study in Paris next season, and wouldn’t be readily available. But just in time they called to say that October was being held for US appearances and that our concert week might just work. Narek’s later Tchaikovsky win was the promotional icing on the cake.

How did having him on board affect your programming? 

I knew from hearing him in other pieces last February that he was very flexible and could play well a wide variety of music. I also knew that even though I wanted him very much, I did not need to feature him. In that sense I was free to program with all the artists and repertoire equally in mind. Once we settled on our theme of piano quintets for the season, and our practice of seeking out important anniversaries, the Loeffler Songs called Four Poems (he was born 1861), and the Gubaidulina Piano Quintet (her 80th birthday is later in the week) were natural fits with a Mozart piano trio to start. Of course, since Narek won the competition we thought our audience would love to hear him in something more revealing of his solo ability. Mihae Lee and he will play the Schumann Fantasy Pieces which I know he plays supremely. I shouldn’t neglect to mention the names of the other players: Krista River, mezzo-soprano; Ida Levin, Jennifer Frautschi, violins; Roger Tapping, viola; and Mihae Lee, piano.

BMInt next interviewed Narek Hakhnazaryan:

BMInt: Congratulations on your Tchaikovsky Gold Medal. We have followed the studio of Laurence Lesser for many years and I’m not astonished that one of his students had this recognition. Tell us about how you came to work with Professor Lesser.

Narek Hakhnazaryan: I first met Professor Lesser on a visit to Boston in when I played for him in 2006. Our second meeting was at the previous (2007) Tchaikovsky Competition where he was on the jury. After the competition he invited me to study with him in Boston. In 2008 and 2009 I also participated in the Ravinia Music Festival where I met many other faculty members of NEC, like Miriam Freed and Kim Kashkashian. I also met some NEC students and realized that NEC’s level of everything was so high that I was just won over.

Entering the Artist Diploma program with Professor Lesser led to two of the most productive years of my professional life. It was a really great experience—really amazing. And NEC’s attitude towards me made me feel like a member of a family. I’m really happy about my two years.

For sure I improved so much! Even my pianist told me how much I improved in sound and everything. And my repertoire changed too. Because of Mr. Lesser I learned Hindemith’s Solo Cello Sonata, Britten’s Sonata No. 3 for Solo Cello…but I also learned and played for the first time Bach’s Sixth Suite…It was very, very productive. I hadn’t really been exposed to twentieth century music so much before, or so deeply.

Was there any 20th century music in the Tchaikovsky Competition?

There was a required piece written by Penderetsky especially for the competition. And in addition to that I chose to play a new  sonata for cello solo by the  Armenian composer Adam Khuduyoan. I also played a lot of 19th century music. There were also a Brahms sonata and a Beethoven sonata—and a range of repertoire including Bach.

I’m also very proud that I not only won the competition, but I also got a prize for the best performance of a classical concerto. And it was Haydn’s C Major Concerto with a chamber orchestra for the second round. The two concertos in the final round were the Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a required piece, and my second choice of a concerto was Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. And you can watch and listen to all of this on the Tchaikovsky Website in very high quality.

Where are you living now?

Well I’m based for now in Moscow, but I have plans to move to Europe.

How come your English be so good?

Well, I lived in Boston for two years and I had learned it also when I was traveling around, because English is the only language you can speak in most other countries.  In Germany, Italy—everywhere people speak English.

Tell us how you met Marcus Thompson, the artistic director of Boston Chamber Music Series.

Last February in New York we were both playing in a Young Concert Artists gala concert. We were playing the Mendelssohn Octet together—Marcus was first viola and I was first cello and we were seated next to each other. In the slow movement there is a huge duo that we shared—it’s so beautiful—I was very happy to play with Marcus because he’s such a great violist. We felt really very comfortable together.

Since your win are you going to be too busy playing concerti to do as much chamber music as you would like?

I will always try to play as much chamber music as I can, but it surely  will  be less chamber music than I used to play since my schedule is so much busier now.

The problem with playing cello concerti is that there are only a very few that orchestras wish to engage cellists to play.

That’s a pretty big problem, but now many presenters ask for a contemporary piece like the Penderetsky Concerto or Lutoslawski, so my future plans are to learn new concertos and to play them.

Now that you’ve begun to love 20th century music, how about 21st century music? Are there any composers you’d like to commission?

I would really love to have composers write pieces for me and I would love to play them. I’m really open to new ideas and suggestions, but there is no particular composer yet of the younger generation whom I really want to work with, but I hope some connections will develop. It’s already happening that composers are offering works to me, but I haven’t yet had the time to pursue any.

Do you still have your own life? Are you working harder than you want to?

Sometimes I get a bit tired, but this is the kind of tiredness I’d dreamed about having. I’m happy to be tired in that way.

Does the Tchaikovsky Competition victory accord you many performances?

Yes, but also after the competition I signed a contract with two major management companies, and since then I have played at Suntory Hall with the Tokyo Symphony, in the Barbican Hall with the London Symphony under Gergiev, and I went on a tour with the Russian National Orchestra with Mikail Pletnev conducting. At the end of October I will play with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Gergiev in Baden Baden. All of these have been arranged for me by the competition—they’re part of the prize.

In your chamber music playing is it important for you to have a close working relationship with a pianist?

Yes, very much. I am very happy in America with Noreen Polera. In Europe I’m still getting to know a lot of different pianists, but it’s always better to have the one that you can trust and be comfortable with. But it’s wrong to stick with only one. It’s also important to work with a pianist who is a real partner—not just an accompanist. I want to work with someone who can show himself or herself to be brilliant.

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