Karine Poghosyan

With Verve and Passion, Kariné Poghosyan Brings Out the Soul of Classical Music

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NEW YORK — Kariné Poghosyan is a truly one-of-a-kind classical performer. From Carnegie Hall to the banquet halls of local New York Armenian churches; from albums of Khachaturian and other classical composers to her popular mini-concerts on social media; Poghosyan inspires listeners with her vivacious, passionate piano interpretations of a wide range of classical music.

I still can’t claim to be any kind of connoisseur of  the classical genre, but hearing Kariné Poghosyan play for the first time a few years ago changed my perception.

At the time, I (a Michigan native) was living in the New York area, and with a few friends and their families, I attended the annual dinner held at the Holy Cross Church in Washington Heights, Manhattan. The historic parish on 187th Street has lost the once-vibrant Armenian neighborhood that surrounded it, but many with historic ties to the church return for periodic events meant to keep the place afloat. As we sat down to an Armenian feast of lamb and pilaf, I was told that the entertainment of the evening would be a classical pianist. “She’s good,” my sharp New Yorker friend insisted as his mother tried to pass me more bulghur pilaf. I nodded mildly, expecting a typical innocuous hantes performance that would inevitably include one of the Armenian classical composers, which in this country seems to mean only either Komitas or Khachaturian.

I was right about Armenian composers, but wrong about everything else. A young woman ascended the dais and began to hammer out a Khachaturian piece like her life depended on it. Astounded by the fireworks coming from the piano, I turned around to observe. The pianist, who I was seeing and hearing for the first time, looked like she was possessed of such a musical soul that one could observe on her face, in the gestures of her hands, and her entire comportment, emotions similar to what Khachaturian himself must have had when he composed the piece. It was my first encounter with this true artist, whose name, I then learned, was Kariné Poghosyan.

Poghosyan, who was born and raised in Yerevan, took the obligatory piano lessons – as all Armenian girls do, she says. She hated them at first. Then, at age 13, her old piano teacher moved away and she got a new teacher, Irina Ghazaryan, who changed everything for her. “We wouldn’t really be doing lessons per se,” she says. “We would just be doing these explorations, she [Ghazaryan] would say ‘Well, how about you play the phrase this way’.” Poghosyan says she will never forget her teacher and how she changed her whole attitude toward music. “Somehow I understood the magic of music…I just found the spark and the joy of music at that stage,” she says, also attributing the change to maturity. After starting her lessons with Ghazaryan, Poghosyan “knew that music would be very important in my life.” But a career? “I saw this old black and white footage of Van Cliburn,” she says, referring to the legendary American pianist who took the Soviet Union by storm in 1958, winning the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Seeing Cliburn playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, Poghosyan relates, “He looked so in the zone, and so fluid…it was one of those moments when a kid sees something and points, like ‘ah, I want to do that’”

Karine Poghosyan

Poghosyan came to Los Angeles at 18 with her parents who nurtured her artistic dreams. (Her father is noted painter Razmik Pogosyan, and her mother, Melanya Navoyan, is an engineer who also dabbles in painting.) After getting her Bachelors of Music in Piano Performance from Cal State Northridge, her teachers, recognizing her talents, encouraged her to go to the center of classical music – the East Coast. After being accepted at the Manhattan School of Music, the family took a Uhaul truck across the country. It was quite an adventure, Poghosyan relates, laughing. They had a small upright piano which was naturally placed all the way forward in the storage compartment. But Poghosyan’s father had created an opening so she could get to the piano if necessary. Every time the family got to a rest stop, the undaunted artist, who was slated to perform at a festival the day after arriving in New York, would slip through the stacked boxes to get to the piano and practice.

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Champion of Khachaturian

Poghosyan gained her Masters in Music from the Manhattan School of Music. She got her Doctorate of Musical Arts, which she finished in a record 2 years. Her thesis was on the piano works of Aram Khachaturian, which also became the theme of her first commercial album. Though Poghosyan is linked in the minds of many with Khachaturian, “I did not really connect to his music as much while I was in Armenia,” she says. Nevertheless, “for our thesis we’re encouraged to choose something that hasn’t been done before. I was just brainstorming and immediately thought, why not Khachaturian?”

Poghosyan relates that not much had been written on the famed Armenian composer since the 1960s when he was still touring the world. She started studying Khachaturian’s works, and “then it just somehow unraveled, this whole hidden passion for his music that I didn’t even know I had, and I just couldn’t get enough – I still can’t get enough of his music. If I have a chance to play it around the world, everywhere, I definitely will.”

Poghosyan indeed has been performing Khachaturian’s music everywhere she goes. Her passionate performance style, in fact, seems to be a perfect match for what Khachaturian was trying to express in his compositions. “There’s only so much you can do with what’s on the page,” Poghosyan says. “There’s so much that isn’t there on the page, but somehow you begin to guess the composer’s intention, and…I feel that deep, deep level of connection with Khachaturian, for sure.”

Classical Star of Social Media

Since the pandemic started, many musicians have turned to social media as a performance venue, but Poghosyan was already there. “I was doing these sorts of things before I had to do these sorts of things,” she says. Two or three years ago, she challenged herself to post a video to Facebook every day for a whole year — 365 videos. She did the same thing on YouTube. Then in January, she started Patreon account, which proved invaluable during the COVID pandemic. She posts videos to it every day and her subscribers – depending on the “tier” – receive everything from the daily videos to special recitals, to sponsor credits in her upcoming albums for the highest tier subscribers. Without the income from regular concerts, this platform has been an amazing tool for Poghosyan and many other musicians.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Poghosyan has added Facebook Live appearances to her repertoire. “If you asked me one week before we went into lockdown ‘Do you mind going live and just playing for the universe out there?’… I would probably have a panic attack,” she says, laughing. But once the world was on lockdown Poghosyan figured, “Why not? Maybe five people will tune in and want to run away into the world of music for 15-20 minutes.”

It was more than “five people” Her Facebook Live concerts proved highly popular and so she made them a weekly occurrence, with her 45th concert — dedicated to the music of Arno Babajanian — slated for Friday, January 22.

“It’s been super meaningful to search for different themes for each week” says Poghosyan. And she truly shows her vast repertoire and understanding of classical composers as she introduces new pieces to her listeners week after week. Poghosyan typically says a little about the composer and about each piece, informing her audience about the background of the music. Her friendly, vibrant demeanor puts a welcoming face onto the world of classical music for those who might not typically listen to it, and makes her fans excited to hear what she is going to present. And in today’s world, it helps to have some context as to why certain pieces were written by a composer. It can go from being “that piece that your 9-year-old cousin had to practice over and over again” to being a deep and meaningful experience, when, for example, you learn that Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata was written after the composer experienced a major romantic rejection.

Bringing Classical Music to a Wider Audience

“I’m very passionate about making the world that doesn’t feel as close to classical music, understand how much they’re missing out, and bring them into this world,” the pianist says. “It’s interesting because since Covid I’ve had so many people write me in the comments, from all over the world.” Poghosyan has fans from the US, Canada, Australia, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and of course Armenia. Her performances seem to spread in a word-of-mouth manner by being reshared on social media. She seems bowled over by the response she has gotten — requests for composers, requests for pieces – occasionally even personal stories that she gets to share in, such as a fan whose friend wasn’t doing well health-wise, but had loved Poghosyan’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition when she was performing in Europe. The fan asked Poghosyan to play the piece and the artist responded with a dedication to the sick friend.

But, she says, “the thing that makes me the happiest is also that I’m seeing a lot of different age groups.” Poghosyan is passionate about breaking down the stereotype that classical music is for old people. It “is such nonsense,” she says. “Young people are all about heart and soul and energy and passion. And classical music has all of that!”

A Proud Armenian Artist

As a proud Armenian, she has had a lot of support from the community especially in the New York area. She has worked with AGBU, Tekeyan, Armenia Fund, and other groups in the past, including a fundraiser with Armenia’s permanent mission to the UN in support of the Artsakh War, which noted writer Chris Bohjalian also participated in as a speaker. Poghosyan’s Facebook account, so valuable to her career, was even temporarily blocked when pro-Azeri hackers reported as spam her outspoken posts in support of Armenia and Artsakh.

She also seeks to promote some of the great Armenian composers who might not be known in the wider world. For her weekly Facebook Live concerts, she generally has to come up with unique ideas of what to present. But the choice for January 22 was easy – it’s precisely the 100th birthday of Arno Babajanian. “I want to use that opportunity to introduce Babajanian to the 99% non-Armenian crowd” who watches her concerts. “I also want to highlight the many different aspects of his music that aren’t often highlighted.” Many know Babajanian primarily as an ethnic composer with his most famous piece, Elegy, based on Sayat-Nova’s immortal ballad Kani Vur Jan Im. “He is so diverse, there are so many layers to him, that [Armenian folk influence] is just one of the layers. There’s also a very crazy avant-garde layer where he goes into this very dissonant, out-there, atonal style music…I’m going to keep it short, because I know it’s not as accessible, but I want to show just a two minute piece of his, that’s just so crazy, Prokofiev-esque and Stravinsky-esque. And he also wrote for film, and jazz style music. And I might to a piece from that style. He’s a little bit like Gershwin, to me.” Noting that Babajanian might have had the stature of Gershwin had he come from a larger nation than Armenia, Poghosyan avers: “I’m going to try to help with that mission – we’ll see.”

Certainly, Poghosyan is not only keeping people entertained during the pandemic, but promoting classical music to a broader audience, shining a spotlight on Armenian composers, and most importantly, using her passion for the music – something that comes out in her playing as well as when she speaks about the composers and the background – to bring listeners a different classical music experience than they are used to. When presented and interpreted by Poghosyan, classical piano music is something more than just an intellectual exercise or a high-class form of entertainment.

“If I can summarize what I’m doing with music, I want to make sure music is more than just an escape, I want to make sure that music … has that transformative power, and you do not come out of the concert hall the same person that you were.”

For more information about her, visit her website, www.karinepoghosyan.com.

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