Musical youth from Armenia

25 years of the diplomatic relations between Armenia and Poland was a pretext for the Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival to invite the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia with its artistic director and principal conductor Sergey Smbatyan. The First Lady of Armenia, Mrs Rita Sargsyan, was involved in organizing the concert in Warsaw. It is worth recalling that last year Elżbieta Penderecka, the director of the Easter Festival, received a gold medal from the Armenian Ministry of Culture for her services in promoting the music of this country around the world. In previous years the festival presented both conductor Sergey Smbatyan and the outstanding soloist of the Tuesday concert, Narek Hakhnazaryan.

Already in the first work, Symphonic Images by Ghazaros Saryan (1956), one of the most eminent Armenian composers of the latter half of the 20th century, the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia showed their exceptional prowess. The five works that form the cycle inspired by the paintings of the composer’s father, offer a veritable extravaganza of orchestral colour, various moods, tempi, instrumentation types, while the original feature of this work are its references to Armenian songs and rhythmicity of folk dances. The orchestra led by Smbatyan played all of this with sparkling energy: the string quartet was clean and precise, the brass lush, and the woodwinds captivated the ears with well-rounded solos and beauty of tone. For me, however, the true gem of the evening was Narek Hakhnazaryan, who at age 22 won first prize and gold medal at the 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition (2011); today he performs with the world’s finest orchestras. Despite the attention currently given to the instrument a soloist is using, and this information is always given in the programmes, I think the instrument does not make the musician, it is the musician who makes the instrument. Hakhnazaryan has a 1707 Joseph Guarneri noble-sounding cello, but even if his instrument were a mediocre one, the Armenian cellist would certainly charm the audience with his musicality and sensitivity to the tone of the cello. On Tuesday he performed Aram Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich (1963). The orchestra’s stormy introduction is followed by a long solo of the cellos. Hakhnazaryan splendidly captured its rhapsodic nature: he changed the tone and saturation of the sound, provided broad and smooth phrasing, breathing much air and space in between the sounds. This musician produces a very characteristic tone from his cello: it is nasal, but deep sounding, indeed resonating with emotion. Lyrical contemplation, emotionally varied narration, dialogue or confrontation with the orchestra, and the virtuosic displays in the final episode of the concerto – Hakhnazaryan was convincing in all of these artistic incarnations. This earned him warm appreciation from the audience, for which he also played the Catalan folk melody, Song of the Birds. The two-note trill, which opens and closes this miniature, was as delicate as mist, and the song itself was performed with incredible subtlety and vividness.

The concert by the Armenian youth orchestra would not do without an exotic flavour. The symphonic suite Scheherazade, Op. 38 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1888) brilliantly shows this oriental colour, the response of the master of orchestration Rimsky-Korsakov to old Persian fairy tales from One Thousand and One Nights. And let’s recall that today’s Armenia was part of the Persian Empire. Sergey Smbatyan conducted this colourful masterpiece (in fact a concerto in several movements) with lightness and fluency, excellently presenting the two contrasting cyclic themes, which form the basis of the work’s narration: the menacing Sultan Shahiar’s theme, played by trombones, tuba and strings, and the Scheherazade theme, presented by solo violin. The guest soloist was the outstanding Polish violinist Jarosław Nadrzycki, the first violin of Meccore String Quartet, who performed as a soloist with the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia on several occasions; in his interpretation, this movement sounded gracefully and affectionately, with warm and rounded tone. The audience liked Scheherazade performed by the musically devoted Armenians so much that the orchestra gave two encores. The first encore was the temperamentally performed Lezginka from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane – this work was not conducted by Smbatyan who stood at the side of the stage and proudly observed how well the orchestra founded and led by him copes without a conductor. The second encore was also Khachaturian – a heartfelt rendition of the Waltz from Masquerade.

Anna S. Dębowska

Tuesday, 12 April, 7:30, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall