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Tchaikovsky Competition cello winner amazes audience

Narek Hakhnazaryan, the Armenian cellist who emerged victorious in the cello division of the last Tchaikovsky Competition, performed Tuesday in the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, bringing this year's season to a beautiful close. Accompanying him was pianist Noreen Cassidy-Polera.

Right away, you got an impression of what these two were made of. Hakhnazaryan took his place by his cello, eyes cast down, face transported. Cassidy-Polera, looking restless, sat down at the piano. There was a moment of suspense. What were we in for?

Then the music appeared in the air. Really, that was what it was like. Cassidy-Polera placed her hands on the keys, and the piano part rippled forth. Hakhnazaryan's entrance was even more amazing. He had an effortless, polished, lyrical tone.

Throughout the first piece -- Schumann's Fantasiestuecke, Op. 73 -- I kept wishing the piano were stronger. Schumann wrote so beautifully for piano, and you wanted to hear those harmonies. Cassidy-Polera's tone was gorgeously subtle but so quiet that even in the second row, I could not always hear all the notes.

In the next piece, the Franck Sonata in A -- this is the popular sonata originally written for violin -- I continued to wish for more piano, particularly in the robust finale. Heck, accompanists are not even accompanists any more. They are known as collaborative pianists. It is true, though, that Hakhnazaryan's tone was on the light side.

At intermission, a listener less hotheaded than me suggested that perhaps the pianist was worried about drowning him out. Hakhnazaryan, though he has a fine singing tone, does have a light way of playing. Sometimes it looked and sounded as if he were dancing over the strings.

Just in his early 20s, he comes off as a bit otherworldly. His lines sail and soar. In fast passages, his fingers are a blur. He has his own brand of drama. Occasionally, at critical pauses, he sweeps the bow from the strings and passes it overhead in a wide arc. The crowd gasps.

He took the stage alone for the Sonata by Gyorgi Ligeti. Ligeti is an acquired taste, but the crowd seemed to have acquired it, applauding passionately.

The piece showcased the cellist in a bold and unusual light. Hakhnazaryan, playing the thorny music from memory, emphasized the contrasts between stark, textured plucking and full, soaring melody lines.

Two pieces by Tchaikovsky, the sensuous Nocturne and the Pezzo Capriccioso, were a delight. Again there was that contrast between broad, passionate melodies and the kind of lightning-quick filigree that made listeners sit forward in fascination. Hakhnazaryan's fingers, skipping and scampering, covered an incredible amount of territory up and down the cello. The ending was wittily finessed.

As the night went on, he became more relaxed, going so far as to peer at the crowd briefly from time to time. Chopin's "Introduction and Polonaise Brillante," Op. 3, was lovely.

Warm applause won us an encore, an Impromptu by Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian, who recently died, at 91. With the Gypsy rhythms and the zest that Hakhnazaryan put into the piece, this might have been the best moment of the night. There were wonderful percussive interludes with the bow beating on the strings.

The piece ended in a burst of showmanship and fun.



Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello

Part of the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series. Tuesday evening in the Flickinger Performing Arts Center, 1250 Amherst St.