Q & A: Violinist Sergey Khachatryan

Classic Arts News   Q & A: Violinist Sergey Khachatryan
The remarkable 22-year-old violinist, set to make his New York recital debut on April 30 at Zankel Hall, talks about his connection to the music of Shostakovich and Khachaturian and his love of fast cars.

Following his recent debut with the New York Philharmonic and a return engagement with the Cleveland Orchestra, the young Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan returns to the Big Apple at the end of April to make his New York recital debut. Joined by his frequent recital partner (and sister) Lusine Khachatryan, Sergey will play two personal favorites, sonatas for violin and piano by C_sar Franck and Dmitri Shostakovich. The recital, on Monday, April 30 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, will also feature a touchstone work, the Chaconne in D minor from Bach's Partita No. 2 for unaccompanied violin. The Khachatryan siblings have plans to record the Franck and Shostakovich Sonatas later this season, for future release on the NaÇve label.

Khachatryan made his American recital debut in September 2003, and a critic for The Kansas City Star called it "some of the most beautiful violin playing I've heard in a very long time." The review went on to say, "From the first notes of Beethoven's 'Spring' Sonata for violin and piano ... Khachatryan had us listening on the edges of our seats ... [He] plays with the suavity of a snake charmer. Yet there's nothing slick about him." The New York Times was enthusiastic about his recent Philharmonic debut, for which he played the Sibelius Concerto: "He is trim and boyish, but he plays with assurance, depth, and a flexible, strikingly beautiful tone ... technique to spare and a feeling for the music's passions."

A 2004 recital by the Khachatryan siblings in Edinburgh prompted this response in The Scotsman: "The two frequently perform together, and have a perfect awareness of the balance between their two instruments, subtly enhancing each other's performance."

Just after the April 30 recital, the 22-year-old Sergey heads north for another important debut, playing Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bernard Haitink (May 3-5).

Looking further ahead, Khachatryan will play Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly (May 31-June 2) and with the same orchestra on tour in Paris (June 11) and at the BBC Proms in London (September 5). He performs the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Mikkeli Festival in Finland (July 1) and returns to the U.S. later this summer, for performances of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

In the interview below, Sergey Khachatryan discusses, among other things, his deep connection with Shostakovich's music and his love of fast cars.

You just had an important debut here with the New York Philharmonic and you'll be back in April for your New York recital debut. How are you enjoying your time in New York City?

Sergey Khachatryan: My debut with the New York Philharmonic in February was only my second time in New York City. The last time was in the summer when I had my Mostly Mozart debut. Of course it's a great city! Maybe not the best city for me to live in, but for a visitor really a crazy city! It never sleeps — there's so much happening here. I've been staying with friends, which is what I prefer to do when I travel, as it's a lot more fun than staying at hotels. While I was in town this time I went to the Blue Note to hear some Brazilian jazz and it was lots of fun. Having a busy nightlife is tough when you have concerts to perform. I don't do much else on days that I give concerts.

You're increasingly appearing in concert halls across the U.S., but have you already played in South America? There's definitely a lot of exciting classical music activity going on down there.

Actually, I've played in Ecuador twice and also in Brazil. I stayed at the Copacabana Hotel on the famous beach in Rio. Unfortunately the weather wasn't so great — lots of rain — but still, we went twice to swim (I was with my father). There were great waves and we were enjoying doing some body surfing!

Tell us about your upcoming program at Carnegie Hall. How did you select this particular repertoire?

The first thing I can say is that two of these works — the Bach Chaconne and the Franck Sonata — have been among my favorites works since I was born. I love Bach, especially the solo Sonatas and Partitas. He's a composer who stays with you no matter how much you change as a person. His music is really sacred, and when you play Bach it really cleans your soul and makes you feel more pure. I feel this personally when I play his music, especially the Chaconne. I think it makes a wonderful beginning for a recital.

Overall, it's a program built on contrasts, between Bach and his Baroque aspects and the Romantic elements in Franck's work. My sister and I have played the Franck Sonata frequently and it's one of his most wonderful pieces. It was written at the time of Romanticism in music, but there are hints of impressionism in it too.

And the Shostakovich Sonata?

Well, Shostakovich is my favorite composer in general. Lusine and I discovered the sonata together last season — we didn't know it before. Each time we've played it my opinion of it has grown. The performance at Carnegie will be only the fourth time we've played it, but still, we already feel very deeply connected to this music. We feel like we've been playing it for many years!

What is it about Shostakovich that you connect with so deeply?

When I was playing in the finals of the Queen Elizabeth Competition I chose to play Shostakovich's First Concerto. During rehearsal there was a man in the hall, and he came to me afterwards and said to me, "Do you know why he feels so near to your heart?" I said no. He said it has something to do with my country — with Armenia's tragic history, especially the massacre in 1915. It remains in our genes. Shostakovich's music has tragedy in its soul. It's the tragedy of humanity that keeps me near to him. And dramatic music is nearer to my soul.

Shostakovich is also on the program for your Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in May.

Yes, it's my first time playing with the orchestra as well as the first time I've worked with Bernard Haitink and I'll be doing the First Concerto. We hadn't met before but he apparently listened to a live broadcast of me playing Shostakovich — actually, a TV broadcast from the Proms last year — and he immediately requested me to play!

And you'll be in Los Angeles for the first time this summer.

Yes, I'll be playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. We have some great friends there and I'm looking forward to it. Although an outdoor performance where people are having a picnic before the concert isn't necessarily the best environment to listen deeply to classical music, it's good for people of a younger generation to feel more comfortable about coming.

Some people were surprised by the pairing on your debut release for NaÇve. The Sibelius Concerto is such a warhorse, whereas the Khachaturian Concerto is more of a rarity. Were you using the attention that the Sibelius often receives to shed some light on a composer from your home country?

Well, Khachaturian is really my composer. As an Armenian he is very near to me and in my blood. I feel so free because I understand the emotion, and that emotion has to be right to really connect with his work. There are specific details from Armenian folk music in his works that are hard for a non-Armenian to understand. This is music that I feel deeply and that I really adore — especially the second movement.

How do you feel about playing contemporary music?

I've not played much contemporary music yet, but this fall I will play the first piece written for me. It's by Arthur Aharonyan, who lives in Paris and recently won a big composing competition. He's a very interesting composer and I'll play his new concerto in November in Nice.

How will he approach the writing of this piece? Will you be collaborating with him from the outset?

Yes, we'll be working closely on the piece. He showed me some of the details already and I've freed up time in October to prepare it. I'll never be able to work with Shostakovich, but it's great to have this opportunity to work with a living composer. To have the composer's thoughts and ideas there to help guide you is a wonderful thing. Perhaps I'll even record the piece.

After the opening night of your recent performances with the New York Philharmonic there were many young girls in the green room afterwards asking for an autograph — and even a hug or a kiss. Does this happen all the time at your concerts?

Well, there are unfortunately not enough young people at many of my concerts, but some of the young ones who are there often come back to say hi afterwards. Thankfully, in Armenia there's a lot of interest in classical music from the younger generation, and I go to the capital every year to play. It's important for me, and it's my duty to go to my country to share with them some of the success I've achieved — to give part of it back to them. Whenever I'm playing it's a special occasion. The young people make up 50% of the hall and many are musicians from the conservatory. They are even starting to make shows especially for young people. I think concerts at the university are very important. Curious students definitely might have an interest in classical music that we can connect with. For me it's easier because I'm young: since I have more direct contact with them they feel more connected than if they see someone from an older generation.

What do you do when you're not making music?

Cars are my hobby — my second life actually! I'll tell you something about myself: I'm really two persons! The first is in the music, my "real" self. The other part is really a "normal" person. And this is the part that really loves cars. I tune them myself, and car tuning — as well as designing — is my big hobby. I have two cars and I've designed the spoilers for them! My new car is an A-4 Audi, with a V8/4.3 liter engine. It's fast.

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