Romancing the keys

Classical music pianist and teacher Angela Cholakyan will be true to her Russian roots Saturday when she performs the work of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky in a concert in West Hollywood.

The La Crescenta resident will also be mistress of ceremonies for the concert she coordinated that features five singers and violinist, she said.

“I wanted it to cover his Romances,” she said, describing Romances as short vocal compositions that are more like chamber music than opera, but based on poems.

“Tchaikovsky used Russian poetry when he was writing Romances,” she said. “An opera is more of a complete story and they are 2 to 2 1/2 hours long. They are instrumental music written for certain instruments.”

The program features only Tchaikovsky music.

Cholakyan will be playing solo pieces for piano, and she will play duos with a violinist on pieces that are written for violin accompanied by piano.

“He has such a variety of music written, and he is [one of the] greatest composers in Russian history,” she said. “His work is always played in major halls throughout America.”

Hyunsoo Lee, who is a private student of the pianist, will be at the concert Saturday.

“She’s one of my favorite performers because her playing is very sensitive and moving,” she said. “I’ve heard her play Chopin and Schumann. My favorite was Chopin.”

As she introduces the pieces, Cholakyan will tell a story about Tchaikovsky, his personality and how it’s interwoven into the music he was writing.

“There are many controversies about his personality and mysteries about his death,” she said. “The pieces we chose will be demonstrating what I’m saying.”

One example is the piece called “Romance.” It’s written for solo piano and is dedicated to a famous opera singer of his time — Désirée Artôt. It was written in 1868, when Tchaikovsky was 28, and was one of his early compositions, she said.

“Tchaikovsky was in love with her,” Cholakyan said. “There were conversations going on about his engagement to her. Some of his friends warned him — he was not a famous composer, but she was very famous, enjoying a concert career all over Europe. He wanted to marry her, but she broke off the engagement suddenly and married a famous Spanish singer.”

“Reading his letters, one can see how he was reacting to emotional stress,” she said. “He wrote this Romance that is dedicated to her, and the music is so sad.”

Cholakyan uses storytelling in her teaching, said Seyeon Ahn, one of Cholakyan’s piano students.

“The way she teaches, she demonstrates — plays it herself and explains as she is playing, and she describes the lesson as she plays,” Ahn said. “The best thing about her is she is very imaginative. As she is demonstrating, she makes up a story. You need a story to play anything for yourself that makes sense to you and goes along with the music.”

Born in the Soviet Union, Cholakyan received her music education at the Tchaikovsky School for Gifted Children and later moved to Moscow and studied at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. She came to the United States with her parents in 1988, and has lived in La Crescenta since 1992.

She started a family and put her music career on hold but continued to teach music and started preparing for the International Invitational Piano Competition in Florida in 1993.

Then in 1997, through one of her private music students, she met USC professor Norman Krieger. She sent him a note and found he had heard her play at the international competition.

“He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was caring for my son, who was 7, “ she said. “He told me I needed to start my career in America, get a doctoral degree and be exposed, performing on the stage.”

For a year, she worked hard on her math and English for the entrance exam, then had to wait and pass the audition at USC. After passing the audition, she received a merit scholarship.

“I got full tuition for five years, but I had to maintain my grades,” she said.

She recently graduated from the doctoral program in the Flora L. Thornton School of Music at USC and was named Outstanding Doctoral Graduate.

“It’s the best doctoral student in the whole school,” she said. “It’s wonderful. It’s the big one of the entire school. It’s amazing.”

She made an incredible contribution to the school, said Norman Krieger, professor of piano at USC.

“Her talents are equal as a performer and teacher,” Krieger said. “That’s a tremendous gift and something to be applauded. She has a lot of charisma as a performer. But I think her most important quality is her generosity of spirit. She has the highest standard of musical morality and ethics.”

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