Mariam Kharatyan, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I grew up with a music school right next to our house in Armenia. Even though my family does not have a musical background, I have always listened to classical music and my passion for music and playing the piano was strongly expressed from a very early age. I always knew that playing music and becoming a professional pianist was going to be my life. I was very lucky to have parents that were not musicians and they never insisted that I practiced, nor pushing me into countless piano competitions in the hope that I’d be the next “wunderkind”. My passion for music and piano playing came entirely from within. I started attending music school when I was about six and my musicality developed naturally, in its own way, driven by my personality and my enormous passion for music. We often had family gatherings at home and it was a pure delight for me to play piano for people from when I was little. I had my musical freedom to practice on the piano, improvise, play various folk and urban songs by ear, alongside my education and training in classical music. I believe this freedom has shaped my personality and musical ear, freed my mentality and approach to music, and my way of performing and interpreting it.

After music school, I completed my Master’s degree in piano performance at the Komitas State Conservatory in my homeland, Armenia, and later completed my second Master’s degree in piano performance at the University of Agder in Norway, where I’ve lived for ten years. I have been lucky to study with wonderful piano professors both in Armenia and in Norway, and learnt from them valuable musical skills and expanded my knowledge in performance practice and unfolding new horizons in music.

My studies at the Yerevan State Conservatory were framed with strong pianistic and academic traditions that the Conservatory offered: well-established approaches and programme/repertoire requirements coupled with high discipline that had a great impact on my development as a performer. Continuing my education in a Norwegian-European musical environment was another great experience and it felt to me as if I was given more personal space. The flexibility and the time that I was given I used to delve deeper to find which genres and music truly excites me, as well as having more freedom in my artistic choices and musical explorations.

The music of Khachaturian, Komitas, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Grieg, Liszt, Schubert, Prokofiev, Berg, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven has been the biggest influences throughout my life, among other composers’ music. Recently, I discovered for myself the music of Alan Hovhaness, Stephan Elmas, and Joseph Pancrace Royer and was overjoyed to dive into a new sound world.

I would dare to say that through performing the music of Beethoven, I found the possibility of expressing the rebel in me, the intensity of emotions carved into the strict and condensed classical compositional canvas. I find Rachmaninoff’s music is also very close to my heart. Performing his music, in all its overwhelming passionate texture and complex musical language and pianism, feels as if one is liberating the emotions through the enormous orchestral sonority on piano. Playing his music feels like diving into the warm and huge waves of the ocean.

Mariam Kharatyan plays Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Royer

While living in Norway, my understanding and performance of Grieg’s music gained different dimensions since I was so close to the Norwegian culture. Having the opportunity to listen to live performances of Hardanger fiddle and traditional Norwegian folk music has opened up new perspectives of interpreting Grieg’s music, exploring the different traditions, and feeling very precisely the composer’s inspiration from folk music.

Through Ravel’s music, I have discovered the enormous timbres and palette of colours on the piano, as if diving into abstract, otherworldly territory, almost vanishing from reality. I must say that in different periods of my life I have felt very attached and tuned in to different composers’ music that has been resonating within me stronger in that particular period.

Mariam Kharatyan plays Ravel, Mirroirs

In 2020 I successfully defended my artistic doctorate project ARMENIAN FINGERPRINTS, interpreting the piano music of Komitas and Khachaturian in light of Armenian folk music. During four years of my doctorate project, I felt a strong connection with my roots, in touch with my essence and communicating on a very subconscious and intuitive aspect of my identity. Working with pianist Ingfrid Breie Nyhus during these years, I learned from her and discovered new perspectives on piano playing, finding out more about the interplay between classical and folk music, different aspects of pianism and interpretation, finding new ways of transferring to the audiences my musical ideas and the sound.

It was a daring approach to unify these two fundamentally different and contrasting Armenian composers into one project since their music isfrom two different poles, both from the choice of compositional form to the musical expression and content of it.

Komitas’ music is more transparent, minimalistic, with softer expression, timbres, and colours -very often introverted in its expression; while Khachaturian’s music is like a volcano, full of energetic patterns, voluminous and virtuosic in style, improvisational in expression, orchestral and very extrovert. Even his small chamber compositions are very expressive and emotional, dramatic, and bright in colour. Both composers’ music is anchored in Armenian folk and traditional music, and the folk-dance elements and the imitation of Armenian folk instruments in their piano compositions were the two significant aspects connecting their music and opening huge room for exploration when it comes to the aesthetics and interpretation of their piano works. My ARMENIAN FINGERPRINTS artistic research project had a great impact on my musical journey and was a milestone in my life.

Listening to recordings of the pianists Martha Argerich, Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alfred Brendel, Arthur Rubinstein, Krystian Zimerman, and Sergei Babayan have undoubtedly had a great influence on my development as a pianist.

Mariam Kharatyan plays Komitas, Shushiki

Mariam Kharatyan plays Khachaturian, Toccata

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Being a professional pianist contains enormous possibilities of encountering challenges along the way. However, all these challenges are an important part of growing as a musician, a chance to improve and learn something new every day. Having limited possibilities to travel and perform abroad was very challenging for me while I was studying and living in Armenia. After moving to Norway in 2012, I felt freer and more performance opportunities opened up for continuing my musical journey.

Accepting established and conservative approaches of interpretations, and the criticism that might follow interpretations and reading the scores in one’s own way, are also well-known aspects and challenges for us as professional musicians.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

It is an entirely different experience to perform for an audience and to record to the microphones without a live audience present. The live audience, and the energy that flows to the stage from the audience, creates moments of spontaneous musical choices, and magical moments that are impossible to fully describe in words; I find the opposite in a recording process/situation. During the recording process, there are different aspects that have to be focused on, and to me, it has been very important during my album recordings to have all the takes as complete performances.

When I was recording the album Komitas, Shoror with the folk musician Vigen Balasanyan, who played the ancient Armenian folk instruments blul and duduk, all our takes were complete performances of each folk song. I believe it is crucial to achieve this uninterrupted/unedited flow of music, both in duo with folk instruments and in folk dances on solo piano.

The album Komitas, Shoror on Spotify

I am also very happy to present my album, Aram Khachaturian, Chamber Music, where I tried to achieve the improvisational character and free flow of the music, as well as searching for folk instrument timbres on classical instruments, together with my musician partners violinist Adam Grüchot, cellist Leonardo Sesenna, and clarinetist Stig Nordhagen.

The album Aram Khachaturian Chamber Music

The recording processes are extremely interesting, very different depending on the music to be recorded, and entirely contrasting depending on musician partners, as well as the producer and the producing process itself. However, live video recordings are fascinating since it is an attempt to transfer the live performance experience and the performer’s musical ideas to the listener behind the screen. I feel that in this video recording of Khachaturian’s piano concerto, the listener can imagine the energy on stage and at the concert hall.

Mariam Kharatyan performs Khachaturian’s piano concerto with Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I put my heart and soul into every piece of music I perform. Each time. Regardless of which composer’s music I play, from baroque to classical, from romantic music to neoclassicism, and from folk/traditional music to impressionism, when I have that strong sense of connection with myself and of communication to the listener through music then I feel I am at my best and that my playing has a meaning for people.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I believe that when the performer is playing on stage the personality and different aspects of the performer come forth through playing. I believe who are we in life, our character, and our temper, all these are mirrored on stage in incredible accuracy through the music we play. The inspiration from the music is present long before I am on stage. Being on stage is only accumulating the intensity of that inspiration. I love to read, I listen to a wide range of musical styles and genres, from different traditions and epochs of classical to folk and world music, jazz, and electronic music. All this has conscious or subconscious impact on how I play. Traveling and discovering new places undoubtedly has a huge impact on me that also is reflected on stage during the performance.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Arthur Rubinstein talked about the importance and the connection that each performer must have with the music: he said that the performer should not touch any piece which does not speak directly to his/her heart. I choose to play only the compositions that speak to me and touch my heart. Each concert programme is an artistic process that needs to have time to mature, the idea to develop and become a concept, a musical story to tell the listener. The music has to get ‘under the skin’, as if the performer has grown into that music. I often write the programme notes myself to give the audience an additional deeper understanding of the music that I perform.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

There are many amazing concert halls and I have been lucky to perform in Troldhaugen, which is in Edvard Grieg’s house in Bergen. The whole place has an incredible aura, an amazing atmosphere, and the intimate concert hall of Troldhaugen with its great acoustics and beautiful Steinway D grand piano has been the place of many precious musical moments. I always love to come back to perform there. From the glass wall of the stage it is opens on to an amazing view to Grieg’s composing hut, surrounded by idyllic Norwegian nature: there could not be a more inspiring atmosphere, especially when performing Grieg’s music there.

Mariam Kharatyan plays Grieg, Ballade in G Minor in Troldhaugen

I have had a great time of performing Khachaturian’s piano concerto with Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Kilden Theatre and Concert House in Kristiansand, where I had truly fantastic acoustics to perform in, and felt the electrifying presence of an enthusiastic audience and full concert house.

I also loved performing at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, where the concert hall was full of beautiful plants and flowers, which felt like performing outdoors in nature.

In 2017 I was lucky enough to hear the pianist Emanuel Ax in a live concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. That was a truly unforgettable experience. The instrument and the acoustics were marvellous. I believe the day will come soon when I will be performing in Carnegie Hall and other great stages, both in solo recital and with an orchestra.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think making classical music and concerts more affordable for people to attend, and boosting the presence of classical music in media, radio and TV, could help to grow classical music audiences.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Every performance for me is very memorable and it is very difficult to choose one. It is a special feeling to hear nice feedback from the audience and to know that my playing had meaning for them and touched their hearts.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Following my dreams and believing in myself. Professionalism and genuine dedication for developing as an artist and performer.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Don’t copying others, but rather explore and find from within new ways of performing the music, always aspire to develop the skills and gain knowledge.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I have understood that it is not possible to predict the future, but it is better to be open to the most amazing and surprising things that life offers during our journey. I wish to continue performing on great international stages all over the world and make music with wonderful musicians. And, most importantly, I wish to live my life healthy and loved and to be able to share the music with other people.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

It must be perfect happiness to be able to live my life in the way I have mentioned above. As a musician, it is true happiness to perform on a perfectly-tuned concert grand piano, and feel the electrifying energy of the audience in a concert hall that has great acoustics.

What is your most treasured possession?

My mind and imagination, my senses and feelings, and the ability to play the piano and express the music.

What is your present state of mind?

Explorative, enthusiastic, and reflective.

Armenian-Norwegian pianist Mariam Kharatyan performs internationally as a soloist and chamber musician and her performances being described by critics as a rare musical experience, her playing as sensitive, natural, and free as if the music has been created at the moment of the performance, dazzling the audiences with her interpretations.

Kharatyan has her musical background as a classical pianist with two Master’s degrees in piano performance – from the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan, Armenia, and the University of Agder, in Kristiansand, Norway, where she is based since 2012 and currently is Associate Professor at the Department for Classical Music and Music Education.

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Image credit: Karen Davtyan