Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan lists 10 major works with orchestra in his repertoire. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The 22-year-old draws from an additional trove of compositions for solo recitals.
Enlarging his scope as a performer, Hakhnazaryan must keep all of his pieces in a state of readiness. In a telephone interview from his Boston home, he explains his solution for maintaining the repertoire. “The best way is to play it in concerts,” he says.
From his hoard Hakhnazaryan presents music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Sergei Rachmaninoff on Thursday, February 10, in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. His piano collaborator is Noreen Polera.
The Princeton concert is one of Hakhnazaryan’s rewards for winning the 2008 Young Concert Artists auditions. The cellist contrasts competitions and concerts in an interview with Florence Avakian of the Armenian Reporter. “In competitions, you cannot make mistakes,” he said. “In concerts, you can play as you want. Competitions help me not to be afraid of concerts.”
Hakhnazaryan is a student in the two-year artist diploma program at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. “I was the only one in the whole conservatory selected (for the program) in 2009,” he says, reporting the facts. “The program was created for people who want to concentrate on a performing career and give concerts. There are no classes and no exams.” There are only cello lessons. There are no fees.
Hakhnazaryan studies with Lawrence Lesser. “He and my old teacher have completely different ways of seeing the music. Sometimes their ideas are in conflict.” The discrepancy fails to rattle Hakhnazaryan. “Music is subjective,” he says. “There’s never only one right way to play. Every choice can be right if it’s convincing. It all depends on the context.
“The most important thing I’m learning from Lesser is to have huge respect for every mark on the page. I was kind of respecting the score before. But Lesser brought me to the next level.”
Although he is not required to attend classes, Hakhnazaryan sits in on some lectures when he can. “I would not be able to come regularly because of my traveling,” he says.
He has audited a course called “Aural Heritage,” which gives students a chance to listen to master performers of the past, such as Fritz Kreisler and Pablo Casals. “Things change,” Hakhnazaryan says. “Kreisler used a lot of slides. Now that’s considered bad taste. But Kreisler was such a genius that it sounded good when he did it. Today people play Bach authentically. They don’t use vibrato, and they play with a light sound. Casals played romantically. He had a juicy sound that was considered desirable at the time.”
Open to non-classical influences, Hakhnazaryan has also dropped in on a course about jazz theory. The music for his cell phone’s voice mail is the work of his ex-roommate and other jazz-playing friends.
Born in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1988, Hakhnazaryan is the son of a violinist father and a pianist mother. Four years before Hakhnazaryan was born, his father, Souren, joined the Komitas Quartet, founded by Armenians 60 years earlier. Komitas is the string quartet with the longest continuous existence now playing; Souren was a member of the ensemble for 26 years. Both parents are now at the Moscow Conservatory. The cellist notes, “Komitas is the most distinguished Armenian Quartet. But being a professor at the Moscow Conservatory is more distinguished still.”
The cellist’s siblings are Levon, 37, who works in advertising in Berlin, Germany, and Tigran, 32, who is the chief conductor of the opera theater in Syktyvkar, capital of the Russian republic of Komi, almost 800 miles northeast of Moscow.
Ten years younger than his nearest sibling, Narek says, “I was lonely because there was no one near my age. My brothers treated me really well, but I would have liked someone closer to my age.”
Narek left Yerevan at age 11 in order to study with Alexey Sleznyov at the Moscow Conservatory. His mother accompanied him. His father stayed in Yerevan and provided financial support.
“Moving from Yerevan to Moscow was hard,” Hakhnazaryan says. “I was only 11. All of my friends and relatives were in Armenia.”
As a student he won first prize in the 2006 Aram Khachaturian International Competition and was a prize winner in the 2007 Tchaikovsky International Competition. As recipient of a scholarship from the Rostropovich Russian Performing Arts Fund, he performed in Russia, China, Japan, Korea, England, Greece, Turkey, Canada, and the United States.
Before he finished his studies in Moscow Hakhnazaryan set his sights on Boston. “There two reasons,” he says. “First, I wanted to study with Lesser.” The second is the three-and-a-half year contract he received for winning the 2008 Young Concert Artists International auditions.
“Moving to Boston alone when I was 20 was much easier than going from Yerevan to Moscow,” he says. “By then I had done a lot of travelling.” His trajectory now includes returning to Russia twice a year. In Boston Hakhnazaryan delights in the quality of string instruction at the New England Conservatory of Music, and in the excellence of the students there.
Hakhnazaryan is crafting a solo career, giving recitals or performing with orchestras. He plays chamber music as a diversion. “Chamber music is secondary,” he says. “It improves your musical skills, and you learn something from other players, especially when they’re great musicians. I like to sight read chamber music for fun.”
On his own Hakhnazaryan has worked out how to play guitar and saxophone. However, the duduk, the mournful traditional double reed Armenian wind instrument that roughly resembles a recorder, eludes him. The duduk is now often heard on the soundtracks of American movies, among them “Gladiator” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
“I love the instrument,” Hakhnazaryan says. “It’s not easy to play. I haven’t yet had the time to learn it. I’ll probably need a teacher.” Many Armenian songs or their accompaniments use duduk, but the appeal of the instrument is only partly ethnic. “The sound is special,” Hakhnazaryan says. “It’s a deep, human sound.”
Maintaining good relations with his own instrument is likely to deflect Hakhnazaryan from the duduk for a while. He plays a 1698 David Tecchler cello. Born in Austria, Tecchler moved to Rome and became known as a leading maker of cellos and double basses. Hakhnazaryan’s instrument is on loan from Valentine Saarmaa, granddaughter of the famed luthier Jacques Francais. “It does everything I want,” he says. “It’s easier to play than other instruments. It has a great tone.
“Instruments must fit the way an instrumentalist plays. If you can get an old, Italian great instrument, take it. I can’t understand when people complain about a Guarneri or a Stradivarius. There is no perfect instrument. They all have difficulties. You have to learn how to deal with them.”
I take these remarks as an invitation to hear about Hakhnazaryan’s experiences with the problem sound in the cello known as a wolf. The wolf is a note that sounds distressingly different from other notes and is uncontrollable. Hakhnazaryan describes it as a “buzzing, unclear sound.
“All cellos have a wolf,” he says. “Mostly they occur on the two lowest cello strings. They come up less frequently on higher strings. The best solution is to play the note in a different place on the cello, but that’s not always possible. You can always find a way to deal with a wolf. There are many devices that eliminate wolfs. But they may reduce the sound of the instrument. Some cellists prefer a little less sound. I prefer to have the full sound of the cello and deal with the wolf by my own powers.”
The wolf problem solved, Hakhnazaryan is bothered by audience applause between movements of a piece, but he’s philosophical. “It breaks the continuity. But, on other side, it’s the audience’s way of expressing their appreciation.”
Hakhnazaryan compares another measure of audience appreciation, the standing ovation, among global listeners. The fastest audiences on their feet are in the United States, he says. Russians are the most difficult. “The Russian mentality is demanding,” he says. “Western Europe is in between. Italy and Spain are more like the U. S. People are happy to hear music, and they’re enthusiastic.”
As he increases his concertizing, Hakhnazaryan keeps a tight rein on his hopes. “I’m trying not to make any dreams,” he says. “My main plan is to do as much as I can, as well as I can. We’ll see how it will work and what I will get.”
Concert Classics, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Thursday, February 10, 8 p.m. Narek Hakhnazaryan, violoncello, 2008 prize winner of the Young Concert Artists makes his area recital debut. Program features sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. $20 to $40. 609-258-9220 or www.princeton.edu/puconcerts.