For Narek Hakhnazaryan, taking flight to a Fresno Philharmonic concert is a joy
The theme of Sunday’s Fresno Philharmonic Masterworks concert is “Bird Tales.” It could serve as the motto for that rarefied group of virtuoso classical musicians that makes its living traveling from one international gig to another.
Take Narek Hakhnazaryan, for example, who performs Sunday with the orchestra. He started out a few days ago in Yerevan, Armenia. From there he hopped a plane to Vienna, then Chicago, then San Francisco. (He rented a car to drive from there to Fresno, because he’s also fitting in a concert in Sacramento, and driving made more sense for those two legs.) Then from California he will fly to Germany, where he will play a couple of concerts, and then Austria, Spain and Dubai.
And that’s just one trip on his schedule this year.
If he were a bird, his wings would be very tired.
As an acclaimed cellist – he won the 2011 Tchaikovsky International Cello Competition in Moscow – he’s in demand all over the world. But Fresno is a special place for him to visit.
“Rarely can you witness such a thing as a Hakhnazaryan playing in Saroyan Theatre,” he says in a phone interview. “There are very, very few places in the world that Armenian musicians can be proud to say that.”
This isn’t his first visit to Fresno. In 2017 the cellist performed a special concert for the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series.
In Sunday’s concert with the Fresno Philharmonic, Hakhnazaryan will perform two pieces by Saint-Saens: “The Swan,” which is part of the composer’s beloved “Carnival of the Animals”; and the composer’s Cello Concerto No. 1.
Guest artists often perform just one piece, but the concerto, which clocks in at about 20 minutes, is shorter than most. Hakhnazaryan enjoys getting to offer another piece as well.
“The Swan” has an obvious connection to the “Bird Tales” concert theme. Other pieces on the program contributing to the avian theme include Stravinski’s “The Firebird” and Siamak Aghaei and Colin Jacobsen’s “Ascending Bird.”
As far as the concerto goes, he wasn’t as sure about the bird connection. (“I have to be perfectly honest with you. Very often I’m not aware about the general concept of a concert. In this case the presenter came up with the idea of Saint-Saens, and I’m always happy to play that concerto.”) But in general terms, he says, the concerto has kind of a connection with flight “because it’s quite light. It’s also the fact that it’s sort of a one-movement concerto. It does have several movements, but there’s no break in between them. So it sounds like one pretty fast-paced piece. So that can be interpreted as a connection to flight compared to, say, a Dvorac concerto, which has several distinctive moments with breaks in between. The Saint-Saens concerto doesn’t have that.”
(To which I respond with a pretty bad joke: In other words, the Saint-Saens concerto is a non-stop experience. There’s no need to land and take connecting flights. He laughs.)
His suggestion for audience members listening to the concerto: Don’t try to intellectualize the experience. He doesn’t feel it needs any explanation from him.
“It depends on the piece whether I want to say something (about the background) or not. For example, in a Dvorak or Shostakovich concerto, there are moments in the piece where you should know where the composer wrote it, what was happening in his life, what that episode was all about. With the Saint-Saens concerto – and I want to put this the right way without diminishing the value of the concerto – it’s very easy to digest for a not-experienced audience. Which is a great thing. It’s just a beautiful, melodic, typical French piece. What I would suggest is not to listen to it as a piece of serious intellectual classical music, but just to relax and enjoy it without thinking too much.”
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Now 34, Hakhnazaryan is a veteran performer, having been on the road since he was a young teenager. His gold medal win in the 2011 Tchaikovsky International Cello Competition in Moscow launched him on the world stage.
He moved back to Yerevan as his home base about a year ago after spending the previous seven years living in Vienna. Particularly after the Covid pandemic, he felt a need to get back to his roots.
“All my life, since I left Armenia when I was 11 years old, I always felt homesick. My true home will always remain Armenia.”
No wonder the Saroyan Theatre is a special place for him to play.