Narek Hakhnazaryan

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May 10
 

Rising star cellist and winner of the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition Narek Hakhnazaryan is hitting Hong Kong to play a programme as part of the Premiere Performances Recital Series. Josiah Ng sits down to talk with the man behind a masterful musical touch, evocative performance and career steeped in accolades, all before the age of 30 

It often seems that the world is filled to the brim with classical musicians, young prodigies and technical masters, that the world has music aplenty. Yet few come along that are as young and yet as evocative, virtuosic and passionate as Narek Hakhnazaryan. Quickly establishing himself as one of the biggest names in classical music, the 27-year-old won the gold medal at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition, and has been on a roaring rise ever since. His accolades are plenty and yet he remains steadfast in his musical approach, unwavering in excellence. He sits down with us ahead of his performance to talk musical education, the upcoming performance, and future activities.

How did you get into playing the cello?
I started when I was 6 years old in my motherland Armenia, my parents are both musicians and they picked cello for me. When I was eleven I moved to Moscow Russia for my music education. 

I saw that you studied in Boston for a while. What are the differences between a Russian and American education? Do you have a preferred system?
Although, I really enjoyed my years in Boston where I also received music education. There’s a big difference between the music education in Russia and the US. I think both are great in their own ways, I got the perfect combination with the have the freedom to get all the best opportunities in my education in Boston and traditions from the Russian Schools. 

And you said something about personality earlier. Do the different systems require or bring out certain types of personalities? Are different systems good for different people?
A Russian education is very good for people who think that they know more, and they are better than any traditions or opinions. It's good for people who need to learn from a young age. You need to learn the ways and interpretations of music, you need to learn it first before building your own interpretation. American schools give total freedom from the very beginning which sometimes can go wrong because there are some traditions you need to learn, and there should be some traditions in interpreting Bach's music or any composers music, Schumann or Brahms, etc. European and American music schools, especially in the first stage of education, give too much freedom, whereas Russian schools put emphasis on tradition sometimes too much. That's why I said it depends on the student. If you don't know anything or don’t care about traditions, then Russian Schools are really important. 

 Was it important for you to have the Russian training first before you experienced the American training?
Yes, I think I am very lucky that I've have the Russian school training as a base and then on that base, I've built upon it with the American culture. I think it gave me the perfect combination.

You're very famous for having a very expressive and mature touch when you play, how did you develop that?
It comes from art, it's hard to say where I got it from. First of all, my priority is to understand what the composer's thoughts were when he was writing the piece, what their feelings were in that moment, and to bring that feeling to the audience through my performance. That is the goal I am always trying to reach, and that is what makes my style. There are many musicians showing off themselves rather than the music that the composer wanted to share. For me, it is most important to tell the composer's story as he would have wanted it to be told.

Looking at your program, there are a lot of pieces that weren't originally written for cello, and instead were written for the voice or the violin. How do you reinterpret those pieces and what are the challenges in reinterpreting these pieces?
I don't really reinterpret these songs, I am convinced that cello is one of, if  not the most, versatile string instrument. I hope my violinist colleagues will forgive me, but I think it has many more capabilities than the violin does because with the right approach and attitude cellists can play almost as high as violinists. Violins cannot go as low in octaves as cello can. When I play violin pieces I don't reinterpret or make any transcriptions, I just put the violin scores in front of me and play from the violin scores. For example, the Franck sonata [in A major] which I will play, there are several versions for cello which I really dislike because many of the hard shifts and complicated spots are transcribed to an octave or two octaves lower so it's more comfortable for the cellists.. For me the comfort of it isn't a priority but instead to play exactly what the composer wrote. As long as I know that it is possible on the cello, then I will do it. Sophisticated listeners would hear the differences between my interpretations of the piece and many other cellists interpretations. I think cello has endless capabilities, and I like to use them all when I perform. 

I can imagine it takes a very deep technical background to step out of that comfort zone and also play such a way to bring out the essence of the composition?
What influenced me to take that kind of approach is the fact that my father is a violinist and he is one of biggest musical influences in my life. So, my musical thinking and way of phrasing is more violin-esque than cello-esque. That is also is why I feel very comfortable playing violin scores with a cello.  

Coming back to your program for your upcoming performance in Hong Kong, on the surface it looks very French but you do bring a lot of different cello works. How did you put that program together?
Honestly, I just took all the best music written for cello, and all the non-cello pieces I had on my mind together. All the best music from France, Belgium are very close culturally. I just want to bring to the audience all the best music of that genre and style.  

Is there any particular piece in the program that you would like Hongkongers to look forward to?
It's hard to compare those little pieces I am playing with such a monumental piece as Cesar Franck's sonata [in A major]. As a professional musician, I really admire Franck's sonata and think it's an incredible piece of music. The movements and rhythm, and the way how each movement is connected dramatically. If I had to pick, I would pick the Franck sonata, and also the Butterfly movement of [Robert Schumann's] Papillons. It is a piece which is very rarely performed and I think it is a charming and brilliant piece. It is only two minutes long, but it’s charming because it is very technically demanding to play fast, but seemingly easy and light, so it sounds like a butterfly and not an elephant. That's the biggest challenge of that piece. 

It's been five years since you won the International Tchaikovsky Competition held in 2011, does it still affect you in any big way today? Do you think about it often? 
I always think about and always will think about it as one of the because that was one of the life-changing moments in my professional life. I can say that my career can be divided before and after the competition because that's the most prestigious competition in the world for cello. Winning that competition is a big achievement and responsibility. That competition opened many doors for me and gave me a lot of opportunities. I signed contracts with several of the biggest managements in the world in the music industry. As a result, I have had many great concert including my upcoming concert in Hong Kong. It's also a result of Tchaikovsky and is a result of my tours in China, Australia, US. It's really changed my life and I am very grateful. It doesn't directly affect me, I mean I don’t see any connection anymore. I played Tchaikovsky concerts as a winner, all concerts after that are Narek Hahknazaryan concerts, not Tchaikovsky concerts. That's also very important, there are many competitions which give winners many concerts and then nothing more. In my case it was the opposite, was very few concerts and then my own concerts started. 

Has this transition been fast? It's only been a few years since you won the competition and you've toured the world and how have you adapted to that, to how big your activities have gotten since Tchaikovsky Competition? 
Well I have around sixty seventy this season, it varies season to season. This is a lot for a cellist especially my age of 27, which is considered young for a cellist. I love touring. It became a professional part of my life, seeing new places, meeting new people, working with new musicians, playing in amazing halls. I'm living a dream life, my own dream which several years ago became true. 

What's next for you and your career as a musician?
I want to continue playing and keeping up to the same level, and try to improve as a musician. After Hong Kong, I am touring Shanghai, and then I fly to Los Angeles. I have a couple of great projects coming up in the summer; in July I will be recording my first CD for Deutsche Grammophon label which I'm really looking forward to. For CD, I will play one of the Brahms trios and Dvorak’s Donkey Trio. In August, I will have my debut performance on BBC Proms in London with an orchestra, I'm also looking forward to that as well. I will be playing Haydn’s C major cello concerto. 

Narek Hakhnazaryan Tue May 10, Hong Kong City Hall, 5 Edinburgh Pl, Central, 2921 2840; urbtix.hk, 8pm; Tickets: $80-$480.

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