Constantine Orbelian: Back in the (Sort of) USSR

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YEREVAN — Constantine Orbelian is a hard man to find. He is a globe-trotting pianist and conductor with thriving careers in several countries. And he likes it exactly that way.

He is an American-born, globally successful pianist who is equally well-known as a first-rate Russian conductor.

In the process, he has garnered many firsts. He was the first non-Russian conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1956 by conductor and violist Rudolf Barshai. A tireless champion of Russian-American cultural exchange and international ambassadorship through his worldwide tours, he was awarded the title of “Honored Artist of Russia” in 2004, a title which had never been bestowed on a non-Russian citizen until then.

Orbelian, a charming raconteur with a hearty laugh, said during a recent phone interview that he felt a special kinship with the orchestra when he took it on in 1991 because they shared several things, including that both had come into the world in 1956.

The San Francisco-born Orbelian’s journey, both in terms of music as well as straddling the East and West divide, was almost pre-ordained. He was born into a musical family of Soviet emigreés on the West Coast, making the family certainly different in the eyes of many in their new country.

While his parents left the Soviet Union after feeling the pressure of Stalin’s wrath, the younger Orbelian now calls St. Petersburg home. However, he still has homes in San Francisco, a city to which he frequently returns.

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A Musical Prodigy

The younger Orbelian made his debut as a piano prodigy with the San Francisco Symphony at the age of 11. After graduating from Juilliard in New York, he embarked on a career as a piano virtuoso that included appearances with major symphony orchestras throughout the world. Between 1980 and 1990, he gave approximately 750 concerts, and his recording of the Khachaturian piano concerto won “Best Concerto Recording of the Year” award in the United Kingdom.

During the years after his graduation from Juilliard, he performed and recorded as guest soloist with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. He was on tour in Finland in 1990 when he received a phone call letting him know that the MCO Music Director, Andre Korsakoff, had died suddenly of a heart attack, and the orchestra was inviting Orbelian to become its music director.

For this Russian “treasure,” as it is often called, to be entrusted into the hands of an American was unthinkable.

In the year 1991, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, much of the former empire was mired in poverty and uncertainty.

“I knew I could do something for the orchestra. People’s minds were on everything but music,” he said. “It was a surreal time. There was no electricity, running water, etc. It was like those movies about World War II where people took a suitcase full of money to buy a loaf of bread” because the ruble was dropping in value so quickly, he recalled.

One of the reasons that Orbelian was able to take on the job and succeed was that he had no attachment to the crumbling Soviet hierarchy and he was also immune to the financial limitations of the system. The music director’s salary, which translated into $100 a month, was one he could afford to forfeit.

Orbelian said he was never regarded with distrust by his musicians there. He said with a hearty laugh, “Nobody asked me to be a spy. I didn’t blend in enough. I was just too visible.”

The Moscow Chamber Orchestra has attracted some of Russia’s greatest soloists on their many concert tours: David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonid Kogan, Yehudi Menuhin, Sviatoslav Richter, among others

According to the orchestra’s website, Dmitry Shostakovich, who entrusted the first performance of his Fourteenth Symphony to the orchestra, said: “This must be the greatest chamber orchestra in the world.”

During a recent interview, Orbelian praised his parents for their support. “They were supportive and wanted me to do what I wanted to do” and thus they provided him with financial stability while he went on this uncharted path.

He led the orchestra until 2009.

In May 2010, Orbelian led the opening Ceremonial Concert for the Cultural Olympics in Sochi — the first event setting the stage for Russia’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2014. In 2012 the Consulate in San Francisco awarded him the Russian Order of Friendship Medal.

In 1995 he led the 50th Anniversary Celebrations of the United Nations in San Francisco and in 2004, at a performance at the U.S. State Department, he commemorated 70 years of diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow, all with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. He and his orchestras have also participated in cultural enrichment programs for young people, both in Russia and the US.

He has been chief conductor of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra  in Lithuania since 2014.

He is also in charge of the Music Program for the Stanford University Overseas Campus in Moscow.

Complicated Legacy

Orbelian is the son of Harry and Vera Orbelian, from Armenia and Ukraine, respectively. He is the nephew of the late Konstantin Orbelyan, an Armenian pianist, composer and conductor of the State Sympho-Jazz Variety Orchestra of Armenia, also known as Estrada, a beloved institution.

His parents came to the US after a long and tortuous path. They met when they were prisoners of war in Germany during World War II.

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 emigrated to the US 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.

There is a film about the couple, titled “The Missing Son,” which was shown on Russian television.

“The incredible story of the Orbelian family takes in the entire 20th century,” the voiceover says.

New Musical Journey

Orbelian founded the Palaces of St. Petersburg Festival of chamber music. He also founded Moscow’s unique concert series, “Musical Treasures at the Museums of the Kremlin.”

In 2001 Orbelian was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor; in 2011 in Russia – Order of Friendship for outstanding contributions in the development of Russian cultural ties; in 2015 – Order of Friendship of the Republic of Armenia.

Orbelian has made more than 50 acclaimed recordings on the Delos label, and has led concerts and recordings with some of the world’s greatest singers, including Renée Fleming, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky, Sumi Jo, Jonas Kaufmann, Marcelo Alvarez, and Lawrence Brownlee. He has also helped promote the careers of many young Armenian singers including baritone Gevorg Hakobyan, tenors Liparit Avetisyan and Hovannes Ayvazyan, and sopranos Asmik Grigorian and Hasmik Torosyan.

In 2016 Orbelian was named the artistic director of the State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Yerevan, Armenia. This summer he will serve as the Chairman of the Jury for the Aram Khachaturian International Competition’s first-ever vocal competition being held in Yerevan from June 4-16.

Also on the jury is Isabel Bayrakdarian as well as a representative from the Metropolitan Opera.

The winner will get $10,000, the second and third prize holders will receive $5,000 and $3,000, respectively.

Orbelian said that he has been working with the Opera in Armenia for the past year. And he has been diving in to help the direction of the orchestra.

“There had been a stalemate going on but there was no direction, no energy. Everybody was grappling for money,” he said.

The orchestra in Yerevan provides 750 jobs. The season for the ballet and opera will open in September.

It was the exact same problem that he was facing in Russia in 1991. The day-to-day problems, he said, precluded concentrating on the direction of the orchestra.

The opera had only five productions for the past 15 years and Orbelian decided to use the funds at his disposal so that instead of one new production in one year, he would get eight. He therefore started a process that is new to Armenia, importing productions. That way, the director of a previous performance would come and for two weeks would share their work and thus their Armenian counterpart could take advantage of that effort, rather than coming up with the production from scratch.

“They hadn’t done anything new,” he said. It was the same with the ballet.

Orbelian, again, is not taking a salary in Armenia.

Orbelian is particularly fond of working with singers, and top among those is Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a “superstar baritone” at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Soviet Union and Russia have given the world many great singers, he said, and with the falling of the Iron Curtain, the pool of singers from that region was like “a diamond mine.” He named the likes of Hasmik Papyan, Barsegh Tumanyan, and soprano Lianna Haroutounian, currently at the San Francisco Opera.

“The highest possible talented people we have and they happen to be Armenian,” he noted.

Orbelian said, “I happen to be in love with the voice. I want to take whichever road to make the voice comfortable. There are no boundaries on which composers, which language I prefer. I feel it is a matter of what I am doing at this particular time.”

He has about 50 albums with Delos. His 2014 recording of Virtuoso Rossini Arias with tenor Lawrence Brownlee was nominated for a Classical Solo Vocal Album Grammy Award and a 2015 Vocal Recital International Classical Music Awards.

For Orbelian, the constant repetition of the piece can only lead him deeper into the music and the psyche of the composer. “The more you study the piece, the more you realize the genius of the composer,” he said. “You can’t help but be moved.”

In addition, he said he is implementing acting classes for the opera singers in order to bring the operas to life.

Khachaturian Competition is a member of the World Federation of Music Competitions.

The Competition has been organized by the Armenian Ministry of Culture, the “Aram Khachaturian Competition” Cultural Foundation and the Yerevan State Conservatory. It is held under the patronage of First Lady Rita Sargsyan.

The orchestra, which provides 750 jobs, will open for the season in September.

Incidentally, Orbelian last month in Armenia received the Tekeyan Cultural Association’s annual award for music achievement. A story about the awards ceremony will appear in next week’s paper.

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