Renowned conductor Sergey Smbatyan is closely associated with ensembles from his home country of Armenia. He founded the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia in 2005 when he was just a teenager. That ensemble has evolved into the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, which he continues to lead as artistic director and principal conductor. He is also a co-founder of the Armenian Composing Arts Festival.
But many Americans’ first encounter with the young maestro will be when he leads the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra in concerts at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on 27 November, the Music Center at Strathmore near Washington D.C. on 29 November, and Carnegie Hall in New York on 1 December.
Smbatyan has also worked with the DSO Berlin and the Dresden Philharmonic, the Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra and the Moscow Philharmonic, and the Korean Chamber Orchestra among others. But his association with the Malta Philharmonic, which began in 2016, has been a special one.
He spoke with us about the works on the program: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5; the tone poem “Rebbieħa” by Joseph Vella, the dean of Maltese composers, who died earlier this year; and the popular Travel Notebook concerto for piano and orchestra by contemporary American-Maltese composer Alexey Shor.
You conducted Alexey Shor’s Travel Notebook at the Armenia International Music Festival this summer, and you’ve conducted other works by Shor as well. How did you become familiar with Shor’s music, and how did you connect with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO)?
I received an invitation from the MPO two years ago for a special gala concert with the very talented pianist Dmitry Ishkhanov. That was my first relationship with MPO. Next was Valletta 2018 [celebrating the Maltese capital being named a European Capital of Culture for that year]. Alexey Shor was a resident composer of the huge festival, and we started to perform his music. We performed his Travel Notebook seven times this year on a tour in Germany and Austria.
Did you and Shor have a chance to work together as you and the orchestra prepared for the performances of his work?
Of course, yes, he was there at the festival and we performed his music with great soloists [including] violinists Ray Chen and Maxim Vengerov. During this year we met a lot regarding our concerts.
It’s very interesting music. Maltese composers are very exciting for the conductor and orchestra and I’m very happy to work with this piece with MPO. They research very deeply and perform this piece well, and I have a few of my own ideas about the sound and the whole structure of the piece.
In general Maltese composers compose in a very similar style and mentality. The Maltese school of composing is very unique – half German, half Italian, also with French phrases, but not only European. So to work with the MPO on Maltese pieces is very interesting for me. And of course Vella is one of the greatest Maltese composers, in my own [opinion], and very well known, so I’m really happy to work on this piece especially with them.
With Vella and Shor, the MPO wants somehow to show the old generation and the new generation [of Maltese composers]. We didn’t start rehearsals yet [for the Vella], so to be honest, I don’t know what to expect and how I should deal with the many things in this piece. It’s very based on the conductor’s choice. I hope that everything will be good, and I will try to do my best!
What draws you to Shostakovich? How do you approach his music? You have conducted several of his symphonies – No. 13, No. 8, and on this program No. 5. He wrote this symphony as he adjusted to Stalin’s cultural repression in the 1930s, forced to interpolate patriotic themes. He created beautiful and meaningful music out of his unhappiness, and with the second movement he even seemed to have fun. You even included Shostakovich on the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra’s first recording.
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is one of the most famous symphonies, for sure one of the most famous in the Russian repertoire. It’s a really phenomenal piece because you can hear all of Shostakovich in it, and in his pieces after the 5th you can always find something from the 5th. What I hope is that we can find a special sound, because as I told you MPO is a very unique-sounding orchestra, and because I was studying the Russian tradition in Moscow.
When you try to combine the sound of the orchestra and the special [qualities] that you can find in a special piece such as the Shostakovich No. 5 it can be very interesting. It [has] a very unique orchestration, and it’s a very interesting piece also for the musicians, especially to [play on] this tour and to perform Symphony No. 5 in Moscow on 5 December [after the U.S. concerts]. It’s a very sensitive and of course a very important stage for this Symphony.
That’s why I hope that we will do our best, this is actually one of my favorite symphonies and I hope that the time will be enough to find some special sound. I’m always thinking about the sound and how to find something new, something fresh. To do it on the highest level we need rehearsals, and you know of course time is never enough for conductors [laughs]. We are always complaining about time!
Because these are the last concerts for MPO for this year, and this is a special year for them, this combination of Vella, Shor, and Shostakovich was a good decision and I think [it] will be very successful, or I hope so. You will tell me!
You said the MPO has a unique kind of sound.
It’s very European and very warm, very sensitive but also very colorful and also wild. I love it. It’s very interesting and challenging to work with an orchestra when you can switch the color of the sound. They are very unique – wild and very sweet and strong – [for example] you can get a metal[lic] sound from the strings and [then] just after the second bar you can reach this totally different color. I really connect with the mentality, and I’m always trying to find some differences in how I connect with them and how they work together.
Sergey Smbatyan conducts the Malta Symphony Orchestra in three upcoming U.S. concerts. Visit these links for tickets:
– The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on 27 November
– The Music Center at Strathmore near Washington D.C. on 29 November
– Carnegie Hall in New York on 1 December.