Armenian cellist makes Canadian debut with Vancouver recital

“Yo-Yo Ma’s superstar status as the world’s favourite cellist has the unfortunate side-effect of making it easy for other cellists to get a bit overshadowed,” the Vancouver Sun writes, adding that it’s hard for up-and-coming soloists to receive the attention they deserve. “This makes the Canadian recital debut of Narek Hakhnazaryan all the more interesting,” the article reads.

Hakhnazaryan plays for the Vancouver Recital Society in a program of Romantic and contemporary work on Feb. 10. Journalist of the Vancouver Sun caught up with him in Boston to chat about his life, his career and the music he will bring to Vancouver.

Hakhnazaryan was born in Yerevan, Armenia in 1988, the son of two of that city’s celebrated musicians. At the age of 11 he moved to Moscow with his mother to pursue advanced education. He went from being a local phenomenon with well-known parents to just one of many fine young musicians.

“It was tough,” he said. “Although Yerevan is the capital, it is not so big and crazy as Moscow. In the beginning it was hard, but we both got used to it. The playing was very different. First of all there were so many more people, and many more things going on; of course there was much more competition.”

Beyond the high level of teaching and other advantages to life in Moscow, there was another important connection for the young cellist: the opportunity to meet and then learn from the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who was finally re-acquainting himself with his homeland after years in exile.

“I saw his master class when I was 12 or 13 at the Moscow Conservatory, and this was an amazing, big public event. He was telling so many funny stories about all the composers he knew. I have a photo of him with me as a very small boy; I didn’t play for him, but we had a good chat. My studies with him came later; many times his assistants would call me and say, ‘He will be in Moscow in a few days and would like to see you.’ ”

Hakhnazaryan was even able to work with Rostropovich on compositions written for the great cellist by some of the 20th century’s most renowned composers.

“I was extremely lucky. I. Sadly, we never did any of the Britten cello suites, which I love now. I played number three in Boston a few years ago. If you show what Britten actually writes, very precisely, it is very impressive for audiences.”

Another of the great figures of the contemporary Russian musical world figures large in Hakhnazaryan’s career: conductor Valery Gergiev. “I’ve played with him many times, and he seemed to be very happy with the results.”

But Hakhnazaryan admits that working with the mercurial maestro isn’t for the faint of heart. “His life is so crazy now, he never has time to rehearse, so for many soloists this is a tough problem, I’m lucky to be one of the musicians who doesn’t need to rehearse so much, and this saves me when I’m playing with Gergiev. He is a true genius — invariably some magic happens in the performance and everything becomes perfect, phenomenal. He’s an amazing personality.”

Like Gergiev, Hakhnazaryan is an ambassador for new work by contemporary composers from his part of the world. Along with music by Tchaikovsky, Franck, and Chopin, Hakhnazaryan will present the music of Mikhail Bronner in his Vancouver recital.

With his Canadian debut out of the way, Hakhnazaryan is off gallivanting around the world with a performance of the Schumann concerto in London, a West Coast tour in the fall with conductor Neeme Järvi, and a Carnegie Hall recital next November.

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