From Yerevan to Buckingham Palace. Interview with Sergey Smbatian, the young, workaholic Armenian, who set up the State Youth Orchestra.

He is young, talented and extremely focused. Sergey Smbatian has gone from leading the Armenian State Youth Orchestra to conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Buckingham Palace. Nicholas Maltby caught up with him and asked him about his music career and future plans.

  • You are living in both London and Yerevan whilst you are with the Royal Academy. Do you miss home at all?

Certainly, I miss home. However, I have chosen a profession that requires lots of travelling, constant professional development in different parts of the world; therefore, I have always known and realized that most of my time will have to be spent out of the country, and I should say that I am already used to such a schedule. While away, I try not to give way to my feelings but upon return I realize how much I miss my country.

  • You grew up in a  family of musicians. How was it to learn the violin with your grandmother?  How many hours/week would you train with her?

Firstly, I would like to state that it was I who wanted to become a musician. It is true, I have grown up in a family of musicians but no one ever persuaded me, or pushed me in my career choice. I was sure that I wanted to become a musician from the age of four.

It was always a great pleasure for me to study with my grandmother. While I was a child she was an idol, deserving only admiration. When I became more mature and realized her investment in the field of music, the foundation of the Tchaikovsky school of music, I started to perceive her not only as an idol who I should admire but also a valuable source, from whom I should take as much as possible. Seeing my enthusiasm and motivation, my grandmother devoted most of her time to me. We practiced a minimum five or seven hours per day. Certainly, I often got tired and wanted to have a regular childhood similar to many kids, but looking back I understand the value, importance and necessity of all those hours spent with my grandmother.

  • When did you begin to see yourself as a conductor before a violinist and why?

When I was in my third year of studies, I was already involved in a number of concerts, and through that I started knowing many outstanding conductors. I remember being inspired by them and their professional skills. It seemed incredible to me how it was possible to guide a whole orchestra. It was a challenge for me, a means to discover my abilities and better understand my ambitions. Thus, together with my friends, I created the present State Youth Orchestra of Armenia.

  • When you were at the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory you were also studying at the Tchaikovsky  Conservatory in Moscow. What were the different benefits of both  conservatories?

I cannot single out any outstanding benefits since all the professors in Armenia have received their education in Moscow. My grandmother is not an exception. She studied at David Oistrakh and Alexander Rabinovich. In any case, both conservatories gave a valuable stock of professional knowledge with different approaches and teaching methods, and then most importantly, studying simultaneously in two places gave me the chance to make comparison and take the best of the best.

  • What inspired you to found the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia? How much of a focus is it for you at the moment?

On one hand to have my own orchestra, and on the other hand to guide a whole orchestra was a challenge for me. I was really young and I was eager to do something special that would be sustainable and beneficial for my generation. My willingness, readiness, seriousness, together with the passion of my friends and good people willing to support me inspired me to create the SYOA. Focus? Well, it is the center of my attention day and night; no matter if I am at lesson or at leisure. The orchestra is part of me and is with me wherever I am.  

  • What are your goals for the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia? For how long do you see yourself acting as the Orchestra’s Artistic Director and Music Director?

My goal is to make the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia even more professional and well-known all over the world. Also, I would like to expand the staff of the orchestra, i.e. to change it from string to symphonic, thus making it possible to expand our program as well.

As for the second part of the question, I do understand that everything has a beginning and an end. But I never liked to think about an end as in case I cannot find enough strength and will to continue with my activities. I am thinking about today and I see the future of the orchestra in the best colors – with me in the position of Orchestra’s Artistic Director and Music Director. 

  • And similarly, what are your plans for the Aram Khachaturian International Competition?

This month’s was the third time that we organized the Aram Khachaturian International competition and I can proudly state that it is improving year on year. Actually, we have everything in place to make it more and more successful: we have state patronage, excellent staff, good fame. Thus, it is my mission to develop and make the competition more and more popular. 

  • What has been the most  memorable festival you have conducted at with the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia?

I can definitely say that it was the Easter Festival in Moscow in 2010. We received an invitation from Maestro Gergiev. While in Armenia he was surprised by the enthusiasm and hard work of the young musicians of the SYOA. We were delighted to have his invitation to perform in Gala concert of the festival.

  • Is it correct that the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia performs in approximately 40 concerts each year? Do you have any free time?

Correct. We have a lot of concerts during the year. I am lucky as our musicians never complain; they always welcome new projects, especially those that give them room for professional development. As for me, I seldom have free time. On the other hand, we collaborate with famous conductors, soloists such as Riccardo Muti, Maxim Vengerov, Dmitry Matsuev, etc. and they also guide the SYOA.

  • You conducted London Philarmonic Orchestra in front of Prince Charles. Did that make you nervous?

I conducted London Philharmonic Orchestra twice, once at Buckingham Palace, and the other time at Windsor Castle. At first I was nervous, but when on stage I can think only of music. Music comforts me and takes away anxiety. I am very happy and proud to have had such an opportunity.

  • Can you tell us a bit about ACAF, the Armenian Composing Arts Festival: what prompted you to co-found it?

We have a good composers’ school and the international contemporary composers knew little about Armenian present day composers.  We had an idea to promote our composers as well, thus we developed a project and submitted it to the review of the president of the Republic of Armenia, Serj Sargsyan. Upon getting the approval of the president we undertook the implementation of the project.

  • What makes a good conductor? What kind of temperament does he/she need to have?

I feel kind of uncomfortable to speak about myself as a good conductor. I am not sure how good I am, but I can definitely state that it is all about approach and desire. I want to be a good conductor so that at least a small number of musicians have something to learn from me. I value good education, sound, reasonable criticism, patience and aspiration in order to reach the top.  

  • You do a lot of charity work and you co-founded the UNICEF Children Orchestra; who performs in that orchestra?

It should be the good will of every citizen to give up time for his/her country, to make a difference to the life of his/her community. God gives a unique gift, and it should serve people from different groups. Charity work is a part of my life. 

Every time I speak about the UNICEF Children Orchestra, I have a feeling of admiration and self-satisfaction. It is a unique orchestra comprising musicians up to the age of 18. I am proud to have such an orchestra in Armenia. It speaks about the professionalism of our music schools, as very young people already know what teamwork is, and how to work and invest for and on behalf of the team.

  • Are you a workaholic?

I think I am. I want to commit to many projects and to see their results shortly after. Logically, to be in all these places and present quality work: I have to work a lot.

  • What are your favourite concert halls in Armenia and the rest of the world?

In Armenia it is Aram Khachaturian concert hall. On an international level I have not been to many places. However, from the list I have performed at, I can single out the big hall of Moscow Conservatory.

  • Can you name some outstanding young Armenian musicians readers should pay attention to?

Of course: I can and I should. Not only because they are very professional and they are Armenians, but also that they are good friends of mine: Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Tigran Hamasyan (piano), Ruben Aharonyan (violin), Kim Kashkashian (viola), Narek Hakhnazaryan (celo).

Nicholas Maltby interviewed Sergey Smbatian for