Sergey Smbatyan

The Armenian State Symphony Orchestra Aims to Conquer the World

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By Gaia Ghazaryan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN – For a number of generations, Armenia has been presenting its musical creations to the world. Composers, performers and orchestras have been awarded with recognition and admiration from established names in the sphere and most importantly, they have received the love of foreign audiences.

The best example of such success is the sensation that the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia brought with its birth in 2005, which later on became the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra (ASSO). The orchestra was founded by Sergey Smbatyan (the artistic director and principal conductor of the ASSO) when he was only 18. There could be nothing more powerful than young musicians with hearts full of energy and passion aiming towards raising awareness and sharing their inner musical world with the public. During these 15 years since its founding, ASSO managed to receive international recognition, as well as be a part of multiple international festivals, performances and even recordings. It took over the most notable concert halls of classical music such as the Konzerthaus in Berlin, Musikverein in Vienna, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and many more. Their performances have been broadcast internationally as well.

in addition to all the success ASSO achieved, Smbatyan and the orchestra members are contributing to the growth of Armenia’s new generation with the help of various educational and charity projects in universities, schools and orphanages. Smbatyan’s main goal is to educate the younger generation and present the true meaning of classical music to people.

In 2009, the UNICEF Children Orchestra was created with the aim of spreading better understanding of classical music through fascinating performances all over Europe and Armenia. One of the most special and life changing projects ever created for the youngsters took place in September 2016, and was directed by Sergey personally. 1144 Armenian musicians were gathered together from all over Armenia and Artsakh with the same goal: to perform together as one “Generation of Independence” Orchestra and Choir, for the concert dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Armenia’s independence. That was a unique opportunity given to the young musicians to gain the experience of being a part of an orchestra and express their increasing aspirations for performance.

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Smbatyan recently sat down for an interview, where he expounded on his love of music.

What is the story behind the formation of the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra?

The Armenian State Symphony Orchestra was established 14 years ago by 18-year-old students of Yerevan State Conservatory. We acknowledged that our job was studying well at the conservatory and mastering our profession every day. But one day we came up with the idea of doing something special that would take both our friendship and our expertise to a new level. So it occurred to us to establish an orchestra. We were pretty young back then and didn’t care about challenges and risks. And this triumph of the courage of the youth was what earned us the success of our endeavor. The past 14 years was a unique and fulfilling journey of arduous work, fabulous world stages, warm reception from audiences and continued enrichment of our repertoire.

I know that you were a very successful violinist. When did you realize that you want to become a conductor?

I was 4 the first time I felt the violin in my small hands and I have not left music since then. A violinist herself, my grandma Tatyana Hayrapetyan introduced the instrument to me and became my first teacher. Actually, she was also the one to make me think about conducting. I was very enthusiastic about the violin and the subtleties of orchestral art and my grandma, with her outstanding pedagogical insight, identified my veiled preferences and encouraged me to take my first steps in conducting. I can now say I wasn’t misguided back then.

Sergey Smbatyan and the Armenia State Symphony Orchestra rehearse.

What were the first expectations from the orchestra?

My foremost expectation was dedication. It is extremely hard to step in with a new say in the immense musical world and this already “overpacked” market. We needed to work hard in order to attract musicians. And we made it. We achieved it through hours of daily rehearsals and improvement which resulted in the well-recognized orchestra that we have today.

Do you think you have reached the goal set in the beginning?

Our goals transform over time. We achieve them step by step and keep heading for more challenges as we attain the targeted heights along our way. This is crucial for developing further. To name the goals we had originally set ourselves, I would highlight our first concert, our concert tours, cooperation with celebrated soloists, conductors and composers, performing on prominent stages, affection and sustainability of the audience, educational programs, promotion of the Armenian composing school in the world, advancement of Armenian performing art, etc.

Our goals expand in scale and scope year by year. Our highest vision is to position the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra among the world’s most reputable orchestras owing to its authentic profile and performing style.

You were very young when you founded the orchestra and became its artistic director/conductor. Was there any time at all when you wanted to give up?

Give up? Never! I have to say that a musician’s life demands tremendous physical and spiritual exertion. There are times when you are exhausted by the physical tension, but music has an awesome healing power to uplift your spirit. That’s what helps to take away the fatigue and invigorates you to move forward. My advice to young musicians would be to act with honesty in their work and be true to themselves to handle every task with ultimate devotion and love. Equipped with these facilities, you are able to overcome any challenge.

What was the most difficult thing you faced during the orchestra’s career?

I don’t like talking about difficulties. There are so many of them, indeed, but none is impossible to overcome if you have a great team of like-minded people around you. We get over challenges, acknowledge our takeaways, leave them behind and move forward.

Rehearsals

What is the best part of being a conductor?

The collective effort of a team of hundred musicians and a conductor creates a spectacular harmony that eventually evokes beautiful emotions and moments of bliss in the hearts of the audience. Recognizing this is a huge inspiration to every musician.

Are there any future plans for reestablishing the youth orchestra?

We will leave the endeavors of creating youth orchestras to the younger generation. I will be immensely happy to see such projects around in the future and will contribute to such initiatives with whatever it takes to help them strive, as others once assisted us.

How did the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia become Armenian State Symphony Orchestra?

This transition took place very naturally. It was to a great extent explained by the acknowledgement our hard work by the Government of Armenia, along with our increasing popularity and the fondness that our audience had for us. We had crossed the threshold of youth and the transformation of our profile was both logical and necessary.

Are there any future plans at all connected with the Armenian musical youth?

We pay great attention to the cultural upbringing of the youth. We have been implementing the “DasA” program in high schools, which aims to develop a connection with classical music among children from an early age. Through this program we are also shaping the future audience that appreciates and understands music. We visit schools to have discussions about classical music, composers and their works, about the orchestral art, as well as develop insights on the patterns of behavior at classical concerts. Students are also regularly invited to attend our concerts. I believe our endeavor in the domain of education will continue and grow all the more impactful over time.

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In order to get a true feeling of the orchestra as a whole, I went to a recent rehearsal of its members preparing for upcoming concerts. I then sat down with the musicians and explored their ideas about their personal journeys.

What goal do you set for yourselves before performing? Is there something that you surely want to convey to the audience?

Our main goal is to perform our best, even better than we did before. I would say that we try to reach the maximum both technically and emotionally, but it is hard to set a limit. So we try and transform all the power through our emotions and deliver it to our audience.

Since you perform a lot in general, especially at outstanding venues all over the world, how do you manage to deal with anxiety and nerves? Is there a particular approach to it?

Practice, practice and practice! There is no better cure for that than performing multiple times and getting the right feeling of the stage.

How is ASSO different from other orchestras?

I can name endless examples, but the most significant factor is that the orchestra was born with the help of all the members. Besides being colleagues and playing in the orchestra, we are very bonded outside of our work place and that makes a difference. It makes all situations easier and obstacles swifter to overcome together. The heart and soul we put into our work in the very beginning has remained the same until now. The major role in all of this plays our incredibly gifted and determined conductor who helps us in any possible ways, and sincerely delivers the energy we need to get through the impossible.

What was the most memorable performance you had, and why?

The most memorable one was surely in 2007 when we performed in Berlin Konzerthaus for the first time. It was also the first time in Berlin and we were totally overwhelmed with the musicality of the city and the greatness of the concert hall. We were still so young at the time and everything impressed and touched our emotions with overflowing every single one of us. During our most recent tour, we had the chance to perform in one of the top music halls in Austria, Vienna Musikverein. That experience was unreal. Every time there was a rest in music, I was looking around, trying to comprehend the happening, but it all seemed too good to be true. The whole magic of it left a big mark in our memories.

What did it feel like to be the first Armenian State Youth Orchestra?

I must admit that it was a very special feeling, since we managed to ignite a spark of interest in the public eye during our first tour. Everyone was stunned and curious about our performances, that was also because of our young age. However, if we compare SYOA with other youth orchestras, they change the members once in a while and do not keep the same musicians for a long period of time. Despite that fact, our orchestra’s members did not change and we had a permanent place in it.

What are the expectations from our new generation of musicians?

I genuinely want the new generation to be more driven by their enthusiasm and use their gift in a right way. Keep it on the highest level and never let the interest towards classical music extinguish. I would like to see them continue the job we have started and encourage the coming generations to do so by revealing the enchanting power of music.

According to the tradition, with a massive crescendo, ASSO continues to astonish musical critics and audiences all over the globe. It left its noticeable mark in the musical history of Armenia and all the places in which it has had the chance to perform. Its story being an inspiration for many young creators, will make the latter believe that hard work pays off, especially when it is done with enormous love and passion. The set standard is very high due to ASSO’s quintessential performances coming straight from the bottoms of their hearts. Hopefully, our next generation of musical geniuses will take the lead and persistently adopt this life-changing profession established 15 years ago.

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