Back in October, Symphony invited six exciting up-and-coming young musicians to discuss the state of classical music and the challenges of launching a solo career for a feature in the Winter issue. Among them was Narek Hakhnazaryan. The 22-year-old Armenian cellist was already preparing for a busy season under the management of Young Concert Artists, including appearances with the Pasadena Symphony, Naples Philharmonic, and at the Caramoor Festival. But even he couldn’t have predicted quite what was in store. When he took home first prize in the cello category at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow late last month, it felt like victory for one of Symphony’s “own.”
The Tchaikovsky Competition, held once every four years, is one of the most prestigious in the world, counting Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Gidon Kremer, and Deborah Voigt among its alumni. Prizes include 20,000 Euros for the winners in each category, guaranteed performances with the London Symphony and Mariinsky Orchestra under the direction of competition chairman Valery Gergiev, and three years of other engagements organized by Intermusic, Moscow Philharmonic Society, and Opus 3 Artists.
This year’s competition was marked by controversy of the lack of a clear winner in the violin category—no gold medal was awarded, with Russia’s Sergey Dogadin and Israel’s Itamar Zorman sharing second place. But Hakhnazaryan’s performance seems to have left no doubt in the judges minds as to who the best cellist was. (Click here to view one of Hakhnazaryan’s performances; you must create a login and password.) There was also a stir about Russian conductor Mark Gorenstein’s reference to Hakhnazaryan as “aul”—a “villager” or “peasant” in Russian—a statement which drew the ire of journalists present, and for which Gorenstein later apologized publicly.
SymphonyNOW caught up with the new Gold Medalist to reflect on the competition experience, and the opportunities the big win has opened up for him.
Ian VanderMeulen: Congratulations on your big win in Moscow. How does it feel now that it’s all over?
Narek Hakhnazaryan: Well, yeah, first and foremost it’s a big relief. It’s an amazing feeling because I feel like I got to a very high point that I’ve been aiming at for a long, long time and I’m very proud of myself. I aimed to do that, and I did it. It’s a really great feeling.
VanderMeulen: So this felt like a bigger deal than other competitions you’ve done? The stakes were higher in this case?
Hakhnazaryan: Yeah, of course. This competition is basically like the Olympics for musicians. So now I feel, probably, like an Olympic champion, you know? Because it is one of the best competitions, maybe the most important.
VanderMeulen: So what’s the feeling like, does it take a while to sink in?
Hakhnazaryan: Yeah, I didn’t realize in that moment. But for me it took one night—I slept and when I woke up I realized, wow, I’m a Tchaikovsky Gold Medal winner, that’s cool!
VanderMeulen: One of the pieces you played was the Dvořák Concerto, which at the time of our previous interview you were getting ready to perform some ten times during the season. Looking back, has your impression of the piece changed?
Hakhnazaryan: Well, no impression of the piece is the same. My impression of playing it is different now because, first of all, I’m much more experienced in playing with orchestras. And of course very lucky for me that I had to play it around ten times this season before playing it at Tchaikovsky—it was a very good warm-up.
VanderMeulen: So did you plan on that over the course of the year?
Hakhnazaryan: No, no, those concerts were decided long before I decided to go to the competition. I think we first spoke in October—I wasn’t planning on going to the Tchaikovsky competition then. So I had no idea that it was going to be so useful.
VanderMeulen: One of the things about the competition that’s been all over the news is the comment made by Mark Gorenstein. Are you comfortable speaking about that?
Hakhnazaryan: Well, I’d prefer not to, because that story simply doesn’t deserve to be [given more attention]. The most important thing is just that Mr. Gorenstein apologized to me and I accepted that and I won the competition. It didn’t distract me. So that’s all people need to know and all I need to remember! [laughs]
VanderMeulen: So you feel like people are making too big a deal about it.
Hakhnazaryan: Yeah, they are making it much bigger than it is.
VanderMeulen: So what’s next? Has this brought you a lot of new opportunities?
Hakhnazaryan: Oh yeah, next season I’m packed. It’s just incredible. I have so many concerts and they’re so great. For example I’m playing in Suntory Hall in Tokyo with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. I am playing with the London Symphony Orchestra in London with maestro Valery Gergiev. I’m going to play with London Symphony Orchestra in Vienna. I’m going to play with the Mariinsky Orchestra in Baden Baden, Germany. I have a tour in Asia. It’s just amazing. I have a tour in America in October and in February and March. So it’s just fantastic, just unreal.
VanderMeulen: All over the world.
Hakhnazaryan: Yeah, and that’s the dream of every musician, I think, to tour the world.
VanderMeulen: Are you daunted by it all, is it going to be a challenge?
Hakynazaryan: Of course it’s a challenge, because it’s very tiring to fly so much. But I think I can handle it because the past two seasons I had a lot of concerts, too, so this is not an unusual thing for me. The concerts are more important. But I feel that I’m ready for that.