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Cheryl North Interviews Constantine Orbelian

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - February 7, 2003.

Imagine the following scenario for a terrific movie: A young American concert pianist arrives in cold blustery Moscow on a December day in 1990 to begin rehearsing for his upcoming appearance with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. He is primed and ready to solo in the daunting Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1.

Then, the conductor of the orchestra suddenly takes ill. He dies. The concert is to be canceled. But, like the coming of the cavalry to save the besieged fort, the young American suggests that he can not only play the scheduled Shostakovich Concerto, he can also wield a baton! Like John Wayne with sword held high rallying the troops, he proposes to play the concerto and conduct the orchestra too. They doubt, of course. But after he displays his prowess during a rehearsal, they decide they must allow him to try.

The big night arrives. He swashbuckles through the performance in heroic fashion. The concert is a smashing success! They ask him to stay on as their new leader. Cut to the credits.

But wait! This is not a movie scenario. It's real life -- and it actually happened to conductor/pianist Constantine Orbelian.

Orbelian will be right here in San Francisco to play a piano concerto and conduct a concert with his Moscow Chamber Orchestra at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave.

I had a chance a while back to interview the congenial Orbelian in a breeze way adjacent to the glorious Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow Conservatory of Music a while back. An hour or so before our chat, Orbelian had been on the hall's podium to conduct the chorus in which I was singing and had proceeded to surprise my fellow singers with his impeccable, idiomatic English. Although he looked like everybody's idea of a classic Russian -- a sturdy, stocky bear of a man with a coal-black beard and moustache and intense dark eyes -- he sounded as thoroughly American as hot dogs and baseball.

Orbelian was actually born in San Francisco in 1956. His Armenian father, Harry, and his Russian mother, Vera, came to San Francisco from the former Soviet Union shortly after World War II. Papa Orbelian rose from his first job as a janitor at Gumps, to become the venerable company's general manager. Long active in the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, he has headed its Global Trade Council. Mrs. Orbelian, a respected gynecologist, continues her medical work at UC Medical Center in heart and cancer research.

Thoroughly American Constantine was early identified as musically gifted and was sent to study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His progress was so rapid that he made his piano debut with the San Francisco Symphony at age 11. He continued his education at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City where, by 1980, he had earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in music. Soon signed up by Columbia Artists, he performed throughout the world for the next 10 years as a concert pianist, earning critical acclaim from London's The Guardian for his "buoyant, brilliantly detailed and effortlessly agile" performances, while the music magazine Ovation lauded his "impressive power and sweep."

A spate of engagements ensued for the next few years that included performances with the Boston, Detroit, Moscow State and St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestras, the Moscow Philharmonic, the Helsinki Radio Symphony Orchestra, and more. He collaborated with conductors Valery Gergiev, Neeme Jarvi, Vassily Sinaisky, Alexander Dmitriev, Vladimir Spivakov and more.

In addition, his Chandos recording of the Khachaturian Piano Concerto with Maestro Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra was awarded the "Best Concerto of the Year" award in the U.K. and reaped the rave, "He simply plays the living daylights out of the concerto, exhibiting finger work of Horowitzian brilliance and unlimited stamina" from Stereo Review. His other concerto recordings are the Tchaikovsky No. 1 with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the Shostakovich No. 1, the Bach Concerto in F Minor; the Beethoven No. 1, and many more.

Young Orbelian's career, it would seem, had reached a stunning summit. But life often takes some unexpected turns. His life actually merged into the incredible "movie plot" expounded at the beginning of this column.

Now, 12 years later, the modest, totally unassuming, approachable Orbelian says, "I was simply in the right place at the right time -- a time when my particular skills were really needed."

During his tenure with the MCO, he has taken it on to acclaimed performances in such prestigious concert halls as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; the Frankfurter Alte Oper; the Shauspielhaus in Berlin; the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London; the Salle Pleyel in Paris; Carnegie Hall in New York; Suntory Hall in Tokyo; and on frequent tours through the United States.

Orbelian's star is still rising. This past year, he was signed on as the new conductor of Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. It could signal a sea change for Russia's post-Soviet musical organizations.

Most orchestral musicians in present-day Russia are paid less than the equivalent of $100 a month -- and there are no extant musicians' unions to ensure reasonable hours or working conditions. Patronage from the nobility during the 18th and 19th centuries and government subsidies during Communist times supported musicians in the past. Not only were the musical organizations well-funded, gifted music students were customarily given full support as well. These sources have now evaporated, so present day Russian music must rely on ticket sales and some modest help from the Russian Federation's Ministry of Culture (comparable to the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA) for sustenance.

Russian eyes are now focused hopefully on Orbelian to bring his American know-how and sense of fair play to Russia's struggling, but phenomenally gifted and well-trained musical community.

Much is already in motion. With his Russian-born violinist wife, Maria Safarrantz, Orbelian has founded two unique music festivals in Russia -- the Palaces of St. Petersburg International Chamber Music and Choir Festival, which includes 30 concerts in the city's most beautiful and extraordinary Czarist residences, and a new series, Musical Treasures at the Museums of the Kremlin. scheduled in Moscow beginning in April.

Tuesday's local concert will include not only Orbelian performing as soloist in the virtuosic Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra by Schnittke, but the San Francisco debut of Alexander Markov, the recent gold medal winner of the Paganini International Violin Competition. Markov will be the soloist in the Waxman arrangement of Bizet's Themes from Carmen.

Other works on the program will be Three Armenian Dances by Komitas; Five Preludes by Shostakovich; and Boccherini's Symphony in D Minor, subtitled La Casa del Diavolo.

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