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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 10 July 2008

Nareh Arghamanyan: Virtuosity and Heart

by Joseph So / July 1, 2008

Nineteen-year-old Armenian pianist combines technical brilliance and uncommon musicality to win MIMC Grand Prize

Sitting face to face with Nareh Arghamanyan in her dressing room during a break from rehearsal of the MIMC Gala Concert, one is struck by her large and luminous eyes, her shy yet friendly manner, and above all, the articulate and mature way she handles herself in an interview. Her arms and hands are deceptively slender, hardly hinting at the power and energy she brings to her music making, which a delighted Montreal audience had experienced at the finals two nights earlier. Where does it all come from? “It's from God,” Arghamanyan says with a smile. “He gave me the talent and I use it for His glory.”

Born on January 21, 1989, in Vanadzor, Armenia, to a professional family – “my father is a lawyer and my mother a textile engineer, although she also studied piano in music school” –, Nareh Arghamanyan was four when she had her first encounter with destiny. It was 1993 and times were hard in Armenia in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. “There was no electricity, and my mother was already pregnant with my brother. She put me in front of a piano to let me play with this 'toy',” she says. Three hours went by and the young Nareh continued in the dark after the candle had burned out. The following year, her parents enrolled her at the Tchaikovsky Music School for Gifted Children in Yerevan, where she studied with Alexander Gurgenov.

Her prodigious talent was recognized quickly: she won the first of a string of competitions in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, at the age of 8, in 1997. This was followed by First Prize at the International Competition for Young Talents in the Ukraine (1998), and Second Prize at the Gina Bachauer Junior Piano Competition in Salt Lake City (2000). In 2004, Arghamanyan entered the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna, under the tutelage of Heinz Medjimorec. More successes followed – First Prize at the Josef Dichler Piano Competition in Vienna (2005), Herbert von Karajan Award (2006), First Prize at the Piano Campus International in Pontoise, France (2007), and Second Prize at the José Roca International Competition in Valencia, Spain (2007).

Even with the surfeit of great talent one encounters at major competitions, Arghamanyan stands out as someone special. Technical virtuosity is a given at this level, but she also brings a sensitivity and artistic maturity to her playing that belies her youth. Her playing is entirely at the service of the music, unlike some established pianists who pander to the audience with affected mannerisms and showmanship. There is nothing artificial in Arghamanyan's movements at the keyboard – everything she does comes from the heart. Watching her play the Tchaikovsky No. 1, one is struck by how the music just flows out of her body. “Music is more than just sound,” she explains. “It comes from the composer's heart and our duty is to share it with the audience. Too much ‘show’ and the inner feeling is lost.”

Arghamanyan currently lives with her mother and siblings in Vienna, where she is finishing her Master's degree. Next year will be a watershed for Nareh, when her teacher Medjimorec retires. Their four-year teacher-student relationship has been important for Arghamanyan. Armenians are a warm and passionate people, so studying in the Germanic tradition took some initial adjustments. “I was warmer (in temperament) than the Austrians when I went to Vienna. My teacher kept saying, 'not too much emotion’! ” she laughs. “I think it has to be a balance between the heart and the head.” There is of course no substitute for hard work. When she was 6 or 7, 8-hour practice days were the norm, but given her heavy schedule at the university, the hours in front of the keyboard are less, although she makes up for it on weekends. When there's a rare free moment, she enjoys reading novels, detective stories side by side with Dostoevsky! And living in Vienna means visits to museums to enjoy her favourite paintings of van Gogh, Monet, and Goya.

Arghamanyan is not sure what she'll do after her Master's. With 15 concertos already in her repertoire, she can easily concertize full time. ”I enjoy playing with orchestra,” she tells us. But given her youth and her affinity for competitions, she'll likely try her hand at more in the future. Any plans for the substantial prize money from Montreal? “I am the wage earner, paying for my brother’s and sister's education and our living expenses in Vienna. I'll use it to repay some money I borrowed,” she answers. The MIMC win also means she will have the opportunity to make her first commercial recording. Future dates include a reprise of the Tchaikovsky No. 1 with the Boston Pops in July, and a two-month piano fellowship at Tanglewood. It appears Ms. Arghamanyan is well on her way.

Parting thoughts – for all her successes in the big, showy repertoires of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, Arghamanyan's favourite composer is Bach. “It used to be Chopin, but now it's Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Schubert,” she confides. A piece she is currently working on is Goldberg Variations. She explains, “Glenn Gould's playing of this inspires me, as does Rosalind Tureck. When I play Bach, it heals all problems and I am in heaven somewhere.” n

(c) La Scena Musicale