Narek Hakhnazarian: The cellist from the motherland of apricots


December 2013


Somehow I had long forgotten how pleasing perfection could be in music. The cellist Narek Hakhnazarian, for me, had given back a taste of warmth and beauty to the word perfection. Far from cold faultlessness and meaningless exactitude, Narek’s perfection is at all times dictated by the highest sensitivity and honesty of expression.


Narek Hakhnazarian says that it’s his first teacher back in Armenia who gave him this feeling, this big impression, this love for the instrument. But the young man also had wonderful years of learning in Moscow and Boston. He is happy he studied in both the Russian and the American Cello School and says that he can’t really pick one favorite. The Russian Cello School is much more traditional than the American school and keeps the spirit of the old performers. The American School is basically all about freedom and creativity. “I really try to take the best of both schools. I am not going too far from tradition but still I am not stuck with it”, explains the young musician. “I try to create something on my own, something different.”


Narek is born in a family of musicians; his mom is a pianist and his father, a violinist.  His father wanted him to be a violinist like him but his mom loved cello so much that, one day, she took her 6 years old son to the music school and signed-in him for the cello class. According to Narek, it was a very surprising thing to do back then in the 90s for parents to enroll their children to the cello class because cello was considered as a back-up instrument. If a child didn’t get good grades in violin or piano then he would be put in the cello class. It was even more unexpected that his parents were renowned musicians and professors. “I was accepted without passing exams. It was considered as a rare case of some crazy little guy who wanted to play the cello”, smiles Narek.


In his concert, Narek always tries to program different types of music so each person in the audience will find something they like. Because of the time limitation, in his Carnegie Hall recital on last November 7th he didn’t played anything from the Classic Period. Otherwise he would usually perform either Beethoven’s Variations or Sonatas. For that simple reason that he played Beethoven at his Carnegie Hall debut 5 years ago, this time he decided to gravitate toward Romantic and 20th Century music. “To the question which music I like the most, I can’t really answer because – and what I will say is the absolute truth – I love every pieces at moment I am playing them. I mean when I am playing Beethoven Sonata I never think that I love the Rachmaninov one better. My favorite sonata is Beethoven when I am playing it just like my favorite sonata is Rachmaninov when I am playing it.” The cellist truly enjoys any type of music. Still, if he has to let go one style at this point of his career and professional life, he would prefer not to play baroque music. He doesn’t feel like a baroque musician right now he says. The young musician is making an exception for Bach though, saying that he can play Bach’s 6 Six Suites forever. For him, Bach is not baroque, Bach is not romantic, Bach is not contemporary; Bach is everything. “I can learn, practice and study this music forever until the end of my life and will never completely understand and go through all its beauty. I believe that a cellist who says he knows how to play Bach cello Suites is probably not a good cellist anymore.” I mentioned him his apparent taste for singing while playing the cello – one programed piece and one encore required singing in his last Carnegie Hall concert. “The definition of serious concert changed a little bit now. People try to show something interesting, something new. Whether they do whistling, tapping, or some other weird stuff on the cello, I think it doesn’t hurt to play in a new way.”


“I think my strongest quality as a musician”, begins Narek, “is to bring-out the mood of the piece, to grab the listener and put him in the same mood and condition that I am and that I think the composer was.” The young man believes that a performer is a narrator but not a composer nor a creators. “I disagree with people who create when they play Beethoven or Rachmaninov. As performers we must read the scores as the composers’ letter to the audience.” Obviously, there are different ways of reading the same phrase. Sometimes you can read a phrase in such a way that nobody will recognize it. Interpreting the music notation within the compositor wills is the only freedom of creation that should assume the musician. “So, I think my strongest side is to read as properly as I can the composers’ letter to audience”, reformulates the cellist. “Of course I include my own feelings, my own expression and ways of telling what have to be told but I never go far from the manuscript, from what the composer wrote. I mean speaking short I never play forte when it’s written piano, that would be unforgivable!”


Because he travels so much the cellist doesn’t get many chances to go to concerts. However, he tries to go once in a while to hear his close friends or artists he really likes. Lately, he attended in Boston, a performance of Leonidas Kavakos, his favorite alive violinist. “He is one of the most intelligent musicians but yet not boring. He is on that perfect edge of being very smart and very intellectual in his playing but still very interesting to listen at. Leonidas’ music is the closest to my feelings, to how I would play.” Amount the violinists Narek loves Fritz Kreisler. “There is nobody like Kreisler, he is unique. You hear the first two notes of his recording and you recognize him without mistake. Sometimes his interpretations may be questionable but his playing is always so sincere and so singing; it’s like his soul is playing on the violin. If I try to be picky I can ruin every note he plays”, continues the cellist, “but I can’t, I surrender, he is perfect. It’s impossible to resist him he is so charming. I never heard any musician more charming than Fritz Kreisler.” Otherwise, since his childhood, Narek had for model the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. For the Russian soviet repertoire, he took his inspiration from Rostropovich with whom he had the chance to study. But the young man not only draws inspiration from classical music. In the afternoon after our lunch-interview for instance, he was going to attend a Broadway show with his fiancée while the night before they went to the Blue Note jazz club to hear Jane Monheit singing. “I don’t only go to classical concert; I actually learn a lot from non classical events – sometimes even more than from classical I must to say. Sometimes I also learn from sport matches; how people behave themselves, how they play, what they do in particular situations, it’s really interesting.”


Meeting the young cellist – simple, funny, thoughtful – on that cold day of November filled me with faith. I couldn't help but end our lunch asking what being Armenian is for him. “I think being Armenian is actually a big chance for a musician. It might sound redundant and unpleasant for some people but you know we are born with pain, a pain that you can see in our eyes, you can see in our music, you can see in every aspects of our lives. It’s hard to find any Armenian whose family wasn’t hurt or killed during the events of the past century. For example my mother’s grandfather’s family was burn alive in the bread oven. Every time I play something tragic or sad I don’t fake it. The emotion is always there; I can bring it out from inside any moment I want. I think our very unfortunate fate arouses feelings that serve – so to speak – our music and expression.”