From Nazarian to Nazar

Goldberg Variations

Steinway Society Performance

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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

October 20, 1999. All rights reserved.

At Age 16, How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

At age 16, pianist Mariam Nazarian, whose Carnegie

Hall debut takes place on Thursday, October 21, behaves like a veteran

performer. Coolly, the dark-haired, high school student has assessed

the acoustics in the esteemed hall, and has devised a strategy for

dealing with them. Knowledgeably, she talks about piano repertoire,

and about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who provides the musical

program for her debut. With composure, she talks about the heritage

of Western music and the role of the performer in keeping it alive.

Despite her ponytail, it is easy to forget that this personable artist

is not yet old enough to qualify for a New Jersey driver’s license.

We caught up with the Armenian-born prodigy, a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro

High School, on a Saturday morning at Princeton’s Nassau Presbyterian

Church. Here she practices in the small chapel on the new Yamaha grand

piano. Her main focus at the moment is her debut piece, the "Goldberg

Variations," with its 32 separate segments, which she will play

in its entirety, with all the indicated repeats. The demanding piece,

the way she plays it, takes 76 minutes, without a pause, and is one

of the landmarks of keyboard literature.

You can find Nazarian listed on the October Carnegie Hall calendar,

along with Maurizio Pollini, Kiri Te Kanawa, Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, and

other world-renowned performers, under the name "Marie Nazar."

Her management, Ardani Artists, is responsible for the stage name.

The concert producer is Sergei Danilian, a recent Russian entrepreneur

who presented a Russian "Salute to Diaghilev" at the New York

State Theater. The name change, says Nazarian, "is really just

a slight change, just a shortening, that they thought would be easier

to work with in an American musical atmosphere. Many people couldn’t

spell or pronounce my original name."

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From Nazarian to Nazar

It took Nazarian’s family a while to get used to the name switch.

"We were quite in a state of shock for two months," she says,

"but decided not to interfere in the management’s business. No

matter what the name is, what counts is how you perform on stage.

It’s a trial; we’ll see how it works. It all depends on God. We believe

in my management. For school, friends, and family, I’m still Mariam


For this article she remains Mariam Nazarian. Think of Marie Nazar

as an alias, and consider the Polish pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski,

whose career flourished without any simplification of his name [try

Mee-yetch-i-slav Hor-jov-ski].

Born in Yerevan, Armenia, Nazarian grew up in a musical family

with a composer father and a musicologist mother. "When I was

born," she says, "we had no electricity and no hot water.

Armenia was cloistered. We were educated in the Russian system. It

was difficult because of the Soviet government. It was especially

difficult for artistic people. Many of them stayed in that dark period

emotionally. I try to be open. Living in the United States now, it’s

easy to take the best from both cultures."

Nazarian began studying piano at age five with Zaven Parsamian of

Yerevan’s Tchaikovsky School of Music for gifted children. Parsamian,

who now lives in Zaragoza, Spain, remains her mentor.

Her first public performance was at age eight, when she played Mozart’s

Concert No. 1 in F major with the Yerevan State Chamber Orchestra.

A year later she appeared in St. Petersburg’s Grand Philharmonic Hall.

"St. Petersburg," she says, "was my first inspiration.

It made me want to go on stage. It was one of the greatest halls,

and there I was, sitting down at that huge piano. I could barely put

my foot on the pedal. I got a taste of being a performer. It was an

emotional reward. I liked the clapping and receiving flowers. Now

performing is more of a spiritual experience."

Nazarian’s first visit to the United States came at age 11, in 1995,

when she performed at Princeton’s Nassau Presbyterian Church. Early

next year, on Sunday, February 20, Nazarian returns to Nassau Presbyterian

with a recital in the Nassau at Six series.

"I had to prepare the 1995 program with lack of electricity and

lack of water," she remembers. "Preparing the program was

what kept us alive. After all those troubles, the opportunity to come

to the United States was like sunshine." During that visit she

met Temple University’s Alexander Fiorillo, a frequent participant

in the activities of Princeton’s Steinway Society, who has become

her American piano teacher. In addition, she made her Washington,

D.C., debut at the Austrian Embassy, and also appeared on Philadelphia


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Goldberg Variations

Now, just four years later, Nazarian is back practicing at Nassau

Presbyterian preparing her Carnegie Hall debut, preferring the instrument

to the Baldwin upright in her family’s Plainsboro home. Nazarian first

heard the "Goldberg Variations" more than two years ago, in

the first of Glenn Gould’s recordings of the piece. Enchanted, she

first toyed with it unofficially, as she studied other piano works,

and then turned it into a constant presence in her life. "I listen

to the Gould recording two or three times a month," she says.

According to the standard story, Count Hermann von Kayserling,

Russian envoy to the court of Dresden, who suffered from insomnia,

commissioned the music from J.S. Bach, asking for something "of

a quiet and at the same time cheerful character, that would brighten

him up a little on his sleepless nights." The piece is named after

Johann Theophilus Goldberg, the count’s keyboard player, who is supposed

to have slept in the room next to the count’s, ready to play whenever

the count wished.

The meticulously organized "Goldberg Variations" use as their

theme the bass line of a sarabande that Bach found in his wife’s music

notebook. Bach divided the 30 variations into 10 groups of three.

For the most part, each group consists of a free variation, a virtuosic

variation, and a contrapuntal variation. Each variation is divided

into two sections, each of which is intended to be repeated. Many

performers settle for omitting the repeats.

Since the piece was written for an instrument with two keyboards (manuals),

playing it on an instrument with a single manual raises gymnastic

problems. On a double-manual instrument two hands can play in the

same pitch register without danger of collision. Nazarian observes,

"Playing on a single manual when the music was written for two

manuals is like a one-way street where the cars are going two ways.

You have to decide which hand goes on top, and which plays further

in. It’s a matter of practicing very slowly and putting the hands

in the right places."

A further problem in playing a two-manual piece on a one-manual instrument

is posed by passages where the right hand plays in a lower register

than the left hand. On a two-manual instrument this can be done comfortably.

On a single manual, the hands must cross. In some places in the "Goldberg

Variations" the stretch requires extreme shoulder flexibility.

If the performer’s arms are too short, or if the performer is too

fat, the fingers cannot reach. Relatively small and slight, Nazarian

demonstrates the problem at the keyboard. She crosses hands and makes

the stretch, but a little extra leeway would not be a disadvantage.

The challenge of the Bach piece is interpretive, as well as physical,

especially if an artist attempts to include all the repeats. (Even

the respected Glenn Gould often omitted them.) "To play with and

without repeats is a totally different thing," Nazarian says.

"Playing the repeats requires more concentration. You get more

tired. And it’s a problem to make the repeats interesting. With the

repeats, there are four portions to each variation, and you have to

make every repeat sound different. You also have to avoid making the

music sound square; you have to make it flow. Bach is difficult,"

she says, pinpointing another challenge, "because there are many

lines going on at same time, and you have to show them equally."

Nazarian sees the "Goldberg Variations," not only as significant

music, but as a diagnostic tool. "It’s a great test piece,"

she says. "The sooner you start playing this piece, and the longer

you play it, the more you get to know yourself, and know the level

at which you’re standing. If you don’t practice for a day and try

to play the Variations, they show you where you stand. I’m always

practicing the Goldberg. If you don’t practice the piece, it runs

out of your fingers."

She considers the piece an entity whose integrity is to be respected.

"The Goldberg is not a piece to show yourself off," she says.

"You have to let the music speak. A big problem is the kind of

sound. Sometimes performers use the right pedal and the left pedal

in the Goldberg. They put all this salt and pepper on it, so you don’t

even find the real Bach."

Not only faced with the "Goldberg Variations," but confronted

with performing them at Carnegie Hall, Nazarian considers herself

entrusted with a doubly formidable task. "I have much responsibility,"

she says, "not only for the Goldberg, but because it’s not been

played at Carnegie Hall for seven years." Her modestly prevents

her from pointing out that she may very well be the youngest artist

ever to perform this mountain of a piece at the prestigious hall.

Still, she maintains her perspective. "Getting ready for Carnegie

is no different from for any other performance," she says. "I

always feel responsible for what I have to do. Of course, Carnegie

Hall is special because there’s so much spotlight on it, and because

of its great reputation."

Nazarian has tried out playing in Carnegie Hall. "The house Steinway

is a good piano for that hall," she says. "It’s a dangerous

hall because everything gets enlarged on account of the acoustics.

You can’t go after the emotional aspects of the performance; when

you try to hit the piano hard, it sounds awkward; when you play soft,

the sound disappears. You have to find the right balance for the hall."

Nazarian has two more opportunities to sample Carnegie Hall’s acoustics

before the debut concert, once the day before, and once again on the

day of the concert.

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Steinway Society Performance

Although she will perform the piece for the first time

with all the repeats at her Carnegie Hall debut, Nazarian has played

it before in public. Her first public performance was in March, 1998,

on Mari Molenaar’s 1879 Steinway at Princeton’s Steinway Society during

a visit to the United States from Armenia. Subsequent performances

took place in Zaragoza, Spain; at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto;

and in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.

Nazarian’s CD of the "Goldberg Variations," recorded at the

State University of New York, Purchase, in May, is to be released

the day of her Carnegie Hall debut. "It was a nice opportunity

to get this piece documented," she says. The CD, in a sense, corresponds

to a snapshot, since Nazarian is constantly re-thinking the piece.

"I’m still looking for new things," she says, just weeks before

the Carnegie Hall debut. "By the time of the concert I will discover

more." A pre-release hearing of the recording reveals an enormous

variety of sound and arresting changes of mood.

Nazarian’s English command is the equal of her musical accomplishment.

She began learning English during her second visit to the United States

in 1996; with just a year of American schooling, she outgrew the English

as a second language program and joined her high school’s regular

English class. Her fluent English requires as little editing as that

of the most articulate native speaker.

Nazarian describes her current school program as "a variant of

home schooling that gives me more time to practice. I turn in my homework

and take the tests, but I do it all at home." Her subjects include

English, American History, Physical Science, and Spanish, as well

as driver education, and a "Career Protocol" course. In addition,

under the tutelage of her mother, Nazarian learns about the lives

of musicians, and studies music theory. In the attempt to protect

her hands she avoids tennis and basketball. In summer she enjoys bicycle

riding and swimming. "I run, if required," she says, "to

catch a bus or train."

The other members of Nazarian’s family are also finding their place

in the United States. Father Aram is working on a ballet based on

Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Match Girl" for possible

performance in New York. Mother Anna has made American contacts, and

lectured this fall on Armenian music at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School

of the Arts. Sister Hegine has just turned nine. About her Nazarian

says, "She’s very musical, more musical than I was at her age.

She sings and plays the piano. She goes to ballet class, and choir.

She’s like a fire; she won’t let anyone be sad."

"Fire." Rather a good word to describe Mariam Nazarian herself.

Her constant brightness illuminates the corners of her space. She

observes that preserving the Western musical tradition has become

the province of performing artists. She knows that the task is difficult.

"The appeal of our musical heritage is not universal," she

says. She realizes that her vehicle of the moment, Bach’s "Goldberg

Variations," is a challenge for listener as well as performer.

"Not many people can pay attention to this piece," she says.

"It requires an intellectual audience with a big attention span."

On reflection, however, Nazarian faces her role with assurance. "I

have a great ability right now in my hands," she says. "I’ve

had time to learn the piece and not be pushed." With rare insight,

remembering how young she is, she outlines her place in the preservation

process, and says, "It takes a girl playing the `Goldberg Variations’

to attract attention."

— Elaine Strauss

Marie Nazar, Carnegie Hall, Seventh Avenue and 57

Street, New York, 212-247-7800. The 16-year-old Armenian prodigy,

a student at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, makes her debut

with Bach’s "Goldberg Variations," played in their entirety.

$15 and $45. Thursday, October 21, 8 p.m.

Nassau at Six, Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street,

609-924-0103. The young artist in concert. Free. Sunday, February

20, 6 p.m.

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