Ruben Yessayán

Ruben Yessayán: 100% Armenian and 100% Spanish

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YEREVAN-MADRID — Pianist, composer, teacher, musical manager Ruben Yessayán was born in Madrid in 1978 to Armenian father and Spanish mother. He began his musical studies at the age of eight. He obtained his professional title through the Arturo Soria Conservatory, studying piano with Rafael Solís and harmony with Enrique Igoa. In 1998 he joined the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he studied piano with Nina Svetlanova and chamber music with Isidore Cohen. He obtained a Bachelor´s degree in 2002 and a Master’s in 2004. He gave recitals in Europe, Africa and the US. As a composer and arranger, his works have been premiered in Europe and the US. He has been the artistic director of the International Festival “Villa de Medinaceli” since 2007. In 2013 he founded Musica Humana, an interdisciplinary project with a renewed concept of the concert experience within classical music. He has also been appointed since last January the director of the Maria Rosa Calvo-Manzano Municipal School for Music and Dance in Madrid.

“…rarely have I heard such a lesson in interpretative grace…Rubén Yessayan knew how to play the piece in a tender and exquisite manner, falling in love with it and making us witness the miracle of its creation in a cold and grey afternoon…a pianist who presented a varied program, quite like a mosaic, and transported us with the magic of his interpretation…thanks particularly to his interpretative quality, his good taste and wise talent…” (Ideal de Granada – J. A. Lacarcel – “When the piano becomes poetry”). “…his recent recording on the Verso label rendering the first book of Preludes on the Debussy Year, displays an unorthodox and imaginative program – Book I from Préludes and Children’s Corner – which rivals in freshness and poetic gestures with the Debussy of Crossley or Lubimov , revealing at the same time the major talent of a multifaceted player, open and demanding (Diverdi Magazine, David Rodríguez Cerdán)” (from https://www.rubenyessayan.com).

Ruben, let’s start our conversation with the festival you lead and the project you founded. What new dimension do they bring to modern classical music scene?

Well, these are two very different projects which in the beginning grew in my mind as two artistic beings that would complement each other since at that time I was very much involved with expressing my musical and artistic personality in different contexts. As you know, in many occasions in the world of Art you begin with an idea, thinking it will be developed and executed in a certain way, but somehow ends up breathing a life of its own. So this is basically what happened with these two projects; one of them, the festival, remained as a constant in my musical life whilst the other one took more the form of an experiment which due to lack of funding had to be interrupted, although many of the things that we tried and accomplished I think remain dormant within my creative spirit, waiting to be transformed into an artistic reality that will only reveal itself when the time is right.

Regarding the Music Festival, this began as a project that was meant for the long term and I can honestly say that after 16 seasons our team managed to accomplish the main objective of creating some sort of a durable Institution. It is a festival that has remained small and humble in resources and structure but very big in spirit and creativity. As it happens with all artistic projects of modest size and funding, you have to become very creative with your ideas, your mission and your programming, since I think nowadays music festivals are not just venues for music dissemination but can transform  into socio-cultural networks which in our case bridge the world of music and musicians with cultural heritage and sustainable economics in the context of provincial life, being as we are located quite far from any important urban area.

Ruben Yessayán

Thanks to you, Armenian music is played regularly in Spain. You are also the composer of unique contemporary modern musical compositions. Can they also be considered examples of Armenian music?

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Well, in the sense that I am Armenian all my music is really Armenian music as well as Spanish, but if what you are referring to is compositions with some kind of Armenian flavor or arrangements of folk music, then the answer is also affirmative. I prefer to view myself in the light of the first definition since I consider myself 100-percent Armenian and 100-percent Spanish. All my music, whether it has some kind of folk influence or has been composed in some typically contemporary style will always have a character, a personality, nuances and textures derived consciously or unconsciously from this rich cultural heritage which I have the luck to possess in my soul and genes.

Your album “Eternal Song” presents Armenian classical music written for the piano; it won the silver medal at the Global Music Awards. Please speak about that and other Armenian projects of yours.

“Eternal Song” came up as a necessity after working as music advisor for the movie “The Promise,” focused on the Armenian Genocide. My job for this movie had to do mainly with research on folk music, folk instruments and the general use of music in everyday life. I discovered so many beautiful things about our culture and our musical heritage that I was absolutely compelled to create a personal work to celebrate the many virtues of Armenian music. I gathered a collection of music which I thought was representative of different styles, a sort of a kaleidoscope of our spirit reflected through its music. A mixture of composers old and new which represent not only our best traditions but also present and future paths of creation. Here I included my own arrangements of Komitas songs for Piano Trio as a way of bridging the old with the new. I can honestly say that this is one of the works I’m most proud of.

In terms of other works of mine involving Armenian music, we are right now finishing production on a double CD celebrating the music of Gurdjieff, which hopefully will be out in the next few months, and I can say that it is a work that has nothing to do with anything I’ve done before.

Ruben, years ago I corresponded with your father, Suren Yesayan, who once danced Spanish dances and then engaged in making castanets for dancers. Please tell us about him and the history of the Yesayan family in general.

The story of my father is quite unique. He came to Spain in the ’60s from Aleppo to be a flamenco dancer. He was a lover of Spanish culture and was able to be a member of the best Spanish dance ballet of the time, having the opportunity to dance with some of the best Spanish dancers in history. Even though he quit after just a few years to go into business, to this day he keeps remembering and telling us fantastic stories from that time. Of course, being a musician, I am very fond of these stories since I have also been very interested in Spanish traditions of Music and Dance. The Yessayan family now is split between Spain and the United States, but we wouldn’t be Armenians if we didn’t have relatives in many different parts of the world (laughs).

Is it true that Armenians and Spanish have similar temperaments?

Yes, I think they do. We share very strong characters, a certain sense of national pride, although for different reasons, a beautiful cultural heritage and a huge wealth of creative talent. In general, you’ll find that most Armenians who come to Spain to live feel themselves at home, and Spaniards who visit Armenia find it very exotic but at the same time very familiar. Armenians like my father have always felt welcome in Spain since I think that we have a very open and welcoming society. Spaniards as well as Armenians always love a good party around good food and plenty of spirits!

I remember your solo concert held years ago at the Komitas Chamber Music House in Yerevan, under the auspices of the Armenian General Benevolent Union. Along with European composers, you presented the works of Aram Khachatryan and Arno Babadjanyan, as well as two preludes by your old friend, composer Armen Bedrossian, also born in Madrid. What memories do you cherish from your visit to Armenia?

Yes, if I recall correctly, it must have been 2005 or 2006. It was obviously one of the most special concerts for me, something I needed to do at least once in my life. I remember putting together quite a demanding program and feeling the warmth and support of the audience which was so fantastic. I very much hope one day I might be able to repeat this experience. Unfortunately, there is not much more that I can recall from this trip, since because of preparations for this concert I stayed home whilst my family travelled there a few days in advance, so they are the ones who actually had the chance to travel around the country, and I know they loved it. I had been there with my father a couple years before so it was okay, I guess, but certainly another journey to Armenia is something that is bound to happen sooner or later.

Do you continue to cooperate with Armen?

Definitely, Armen and I have kept collaborating in different projects, the most important being an album with all his piano music which is so interesting and evocative, as well as an honest representation of his craft and capacity to compose in different styles. I enjoyed very much working on his compositions knowing that a lot of them would be played for the first time, so it was also a big responsibility for me. The album is called “Origines” from 2017, and I highly recommend any Armenian music lover to check it out. Another interesting feature about this album is that it was recorded in his own home studio an hour away from Paris where he actually lives. We both worked intensely on this project and are very proud of the result.

We are looking forward to new visits and concerts of you, Armen and all our talented compatriots in Armenia. Thank you, Ruben, for the interesting conversation!

Thank you, Artsvi, for a wonderful interview. I wish all the best to you and your readers.

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