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’”
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.