The organ is often referred to as the “king of instruments,” but it’s clear which instrument truly is the king when measured by the media attention and rabid following that the captains of the Steinways, Bösendorfers, Érards and Yamahas summon.
Thanks in no small part to the cult of personality that the likes of Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, among others, famously wielded, the pianist became in the 19th century the very personification of the performer as hero.
But with all those accolades has come a burden of pressure. There is the tension of having to navigate the dizzying tightrope of remaining faithful to the spirit, if not letter, of the score while attempting to (or refraining from) impressing their own personality on it. That is if the pianist can even make it to the stage to begin with. Because for many (paging Vladimir Horowitz) stage fright alone – and with it the specter of having to be listened to, watched and judged by an audience – is unnerving enough to call the whole career off, or at least put it on hiatus.
And that’s just from performing the music of dead people.
What happens when you’re tasked with performing the local premiere of a work by one of the giants of the piano – a giant who, as it happens, is still very alive and very busy performing himself?
“I’m freaking out a little bit,” pianist Harout Senekeremian joked, “but I know it’s going to be a very interesting experience.”
Not that Senekeremian is a stranger to pianistic daredevilry. The Oberlin and Manhattan School of Music grad mastered the entire set of Liszt’s “Transcendental Études” while just fresh out of high school. He’s also made the fiendishly complex music of the French musical recluse, Charles Valentin Alkan, a personal obsession. The mere sight of these scores, dense with notes and black ink, is enough to make weaker stomachs turn, but Senekeremian can be seen and heard dispatching this music with enviable aplomb and style on his YouTube channel named, appropriately enough, “alkanian.”
Marc-André Hamelin, the pianist-composer whose own compositions are jaw-droppingly difficult to perform and is himself a master Alkanian, forms another one of Senekeremian’s obsessions, one that was ignited more than a decade ago when the still teenaged pianist attended one if his recitals in La Jolla. Among the works on the program was Hamelin’s “Variations on a Theme by Paganini” – the very same work that Senekeremian will be giving its Los Angeles premiere on Saturday, July 26 at the Church of our Savior in San Gabriel.
“I was blown away immediately,” Senekeremian recalled. “We met briefly afterward, but corresponded for a long time after. I’ve also sent him YouTube links of videos where I’m performing his music. He’s corrected me on a few details such as the tempos I chose. But he’s been very encouraging to me.”
The work became the basis of the recital since he agreed in January to perform at the Church of our Savior’s “Music for a Season” series at the invitation of Phillip Smith, the church’s music director.
“It’s just such a stunning venue, really beautiful,” Senekeremian said. “In a way, I built up the whole program, starting with the Hamelin, around this hall’s very special acoustics and looks. It seemed right.”
His program, which will span music from the 18th century to the present day, will also include another premiere: the United States premiere of George N. Gianopoulos’ “Nocturne for Solo Piano, Op. 17.”
Senekeremian and Gianopoulos enjoy a close friendship as well as working relationship, a dynamic that, according to the pianist, can be helpful but can also increase the pressure.
“When it comes to his music [Gianopoulos] is very professional, very honest with his comments,” he said. “It can be tough sometimes. But it also helps me to do better. As a performer, you sometimes need to hear that god-honest truth from a composer.”
Senekeremian described Gianopoulos’ Nocturne as “surprisingly tricky” to master.
“It’s music that touches his softer side,” he elaborated, “but because of that it’s easy to get tripped up on how hard his music can be to play. There’s an especially tricky left hand part that I’ve been working on. But that’s what makes it great. It’s unmistakably [Gianopoulos’] voice, it’s totally him. That’s something you don’t hear anywhere else. All in all, I really enjoy playing new music, but [Gianopoulos] I especially enjoy.”
Then he added: “This whole recital is going to be very special. I’m really looking forward to get up there on the stage and play this music.”
Harout Senekeremian’s recital at Church of our Savior in San Gabriel will take place on Saturday, July 26 beginning at 7 p.m. The program will also include music by Haydn, Brahms, Ravel and Scriabin. Admission is free, but a suggested donation of $20 is strongly encouraged.
For more information, visit the pianist’s website at www.haroutsenekeremian.com or visit the church’s website at www.churchofoursaviour.org/event-calendar.html. You can also follow him on YouTube by going to www.youtube.com/user/alkanian and on Twitter @Senekeremian.