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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."
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
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
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.
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
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.
609-924-0103. The young artist in concert. Free. Sunday, February
20, 6 p.m.
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