Raffi Besalyan Interview on Pianists From the Inside

Armenian-born American pianist Raffi Besalyan made his formal New York debut in Carnegie Hall after winning the Artists International Competition and was subsequently invited to perform at Merkin Concert Hall on the Artists International “Outstanding Alumni-Winners” series.  

Besalyan has won top prizes in several national and international competitions. Among them are MTNA National Competition, Josef Hofmann International Piano Competition, Frinna Awerbuch International Competition, and Artists International Competition in New York. Besalyan made his New York Recital Debut in Carnegie Recital Hall in 2003 to high critical acclaim. He regularly performs throughout North America, Europe, Russia and Asia.

“Technically brilliant… audacious spirit and poetic substance, deeply felt tenderness.” 

“true heir of the mainstream of Russian pianism, like Horowitz” 

How did your interest in piano playing start?

I think I have always liked classical music. When I was very little I remember being drawn to the radio or TV whenever they had classical concerts on, or opera broadcasts. I was particularly fond of Puccini and Rachmaninoff…now it seems odd, as at the time I was probably only three. An interesting fact is that I am from a completely non-musical family, to be more specific, from a family of engineers. I am the only one who pursued classical music professionally.

My interest in piano started when I was about five years old. At the time my older brother was attending a music school for violin, and my parents had to purchase a piano to aid his studies. I was immediately attracted to the sound of the piano. I first began playing by ear, and soon at the suggestion of my brother’s theory and solfege teacher who briefly auditioned me and thought I am talented, my parents enrolled me in to a professional music school.

Few years later I was accepted in to the Tchaikovsky Special Music School for Gifted Children in my native Yerevan, Armenia. There I received really superb education. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be trained in the Great Russian tradition of piano playing! The Russian/Soviet curriculum was very demanding, intense and extremely thorough in every aspect from the very early stages.

Did any tutors/professors create a special impression on you? Who and why?

I would say that every teacher I have had since the very beginning left a profound impression. However, one of my main teachers, Sergei Barseghyan, with whom I began at the Tchaikovsky school and studied throughout my conservatory years, and under whom I received my Doctorate (Aspirantura), is the one who molded me into the musician I am today. He patiently worked on building and refining my technique and musicianship.Mr. Barseghiyan is a person of a very subtle taste, which I believe he passed on to me.

The other two pianists whom I have had the great fortune to study with and who left a great impact on me are the legendary American pianist and Vladimir Horowitz protégé, Byron Janis and concert pianists Sara Davis Buechner.

I have met them both in New York. Mr. Janis’ dazzling technique, his electrifying performances and his colors at the instrument are incomparable. The qualities that impress the most in Mrs. Buechner’s playing are the fluidity, excitement, and her subtle and nuanced approach to the pedaling, phrasing and structure.

Which living pianists do you admire today and why?  

Well, I have already mentioned two of my own teachers Janis and Buechner in the previous question.

The living pianist that I admire the most is Martha Argerich. To me she has a very special “golden” musical aura. There is certain naturalness to her incredible technique that no other pianist possesses. Her tone is gorgeous, colors are extremely subtle, and the fluidity of her legato is out of this world. I can go on…she is simply special!

There are others that I like in certain repertoire, but the ones that I really admire are already gone-Cortot, Horowitz, Arrau, Gilels.

Advice to young pianists…

Since this is a very competitive world, just being a polished pianist is not enough. One needs to have charisma and personality in his/her playing, the ability to draw in and command the audience with a unique style and manner.

I would also advise to learn some tricks of marketing and networking using all the social media available today. Most schools offer classes in management; perhaps it would be helpful to take a semester of an introductory course.

Commitment, hard work and persistence are as important as the God’s gift. Never give up if you really love what you are doing, believe in yourself and your time will come! Take chances; never say “No” to any opportunity that comes your way, especially when you are young.

What is the most difficult experience/challenge that you have overcome as a pianist?

I am a perfectionist by nature and my own worst critic. So trying to finally realize that nothing in life (…and for that matter in playing the piano) is perfect, and embracing/accepting things as they are and not getting easily discouraged is something that I had to overcome.

Career highlights up to now? What are your hopes for the future?

My New York recital debut in Carnegie Hall and a return performance at the Merkin Concert Hall; Chicago debut in the famed Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center with the Rhapsody in Blue; concert tours in Japan (the country I truly love), including my debut in 2001 in Osaka with an All-American program, performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto with the Osaka Symphony in Izumi Hall, multi-city concert tour in celebration of Niigata Nippo newspaper’s 70th Anniversary, performances in Tokyo; performance of Brahms’ First Concerto in Venice, Italy; release of my award-winning, critically acclaimed debut album “Dance, Drama, Decadence” (IMC Music, Japan, 2012) and now, “The Return” (Sono Luminus, 2015), which was most recently broadcast on several classical radio stations across the U.S. (WFMT Chicago, WRUV Seattle, WGBH Boston, Wisconsin Public Radio, SiriusXM Classical Symphony Hall Channel in Washington D.C.), and it just received a wonderful review from the UK on Classical CD Reviews.com; most recently, my Detroit recital debut for ProMusica of Detroit at Max M. Fisher Music Center and a concert for the 30th Anniversary of The Distinguished Artists Concert Series in beautiful Santa Cruz, CA.

I am very pleased to announce that I will make my debut as a soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the great Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a special concert on June 20, 2015.

My hopes for the future are to play with more orchestras here in the U.S. and abroad, have more recital engagements and continue the recording collaboration with the superb Sono Luminus.

In recent years, You have dazzled your audiences in North and South America, Europe, Russia, and Asia, appearing as a soloist with the Osaka Symphony Orchestra (Japan), the Orchestra Sinfonica Del Festival Di Chioggia in Venice (Italy), the Yerevan Symphony Orchestra (Armenia), the Belgorod Symphony (Russia), the Kharkov Symphony (Ukraine), the New Jersey Festival Orchestra, the Owensboro Symphony (Kentucky), and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Does classical music critique/appreciation differ in these various countries/continents? If so, how?

I think the classical music appreciation is pretty much the same everywhere. However, the audiences in Europe, Russia and Japan are a bit more knowledgeable about classical music, art and literature in general. Many people in these countries have some musical background, thus the classical genre is more accessible to them and less intimidating.