In the world of classical music concerts, the unscripted is uncommon. Improvisation and spontaneity can take place within the confines of a piece, or even a demanded encore, but something even more unique happened at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday evening. Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan grabbed the microphone: “I am Armenian,” he said. Even though that was planned, it wasn’t in the script.

Narek Hakhnazaryan © Intermusica
Narek Hakhnazaryan
© Intermusica

Just several minutes earlier, in his Bowl debut, the young cellist dispatched Tchaikovsky's enchanting Variations on a Rococo Theme. Slim and gangly with strikingly dark hair, he exuded an amiable confidence that immediately demanded attention. Even more, Hakhnazaryan’s musical acumen was exceptional. After an underdeveloped reading of selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in the first half, his presence at the beginning of the second was palette cleansing. In addition to Hakhnazaryan’s impeccable technical proficiency, there was a remarkable interpretive breadth to his performance. The pacing of the penultimate and final variations especially showed a particular understanding of style. The expressive range of the piece, brought to life by Hakhnazaryan’s poignantly plaintive sound, was breathtaking in its intimacy. Throughout, Hakhnazaryan was smiling, jovial and reveling with the rest of the players in the graceful joy of Tchaikovsky’s work. It was a triumphant performance and the Bowl audience gave him their most enlivened ovation of the evening. Yet what happened next proved to be even more memorable.

In addressing the audience, Hakhnazaryan noted the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and dedicated a solo piece, Giovanni Sollima's Lamentatio, to its victims. The piece was at times serene and seemingly spontaneous (with the soloist singing), and others fierce and raw, ending resolutely. It was a touching and sincere display, one met with an even more hearty ovation from an appreciative crowd of several thousand.

The common thread of the evening, the dashing young conductor Lionel Bringuier, was a charismatic presence at the podium. He conducted with an operatic sense of drama, giving a taut vigor to the opening sections of the Prokofiev, yet refrained from dwelling on its more consequential moments. Indeed it was as if there were two halves: the exposition (where we meet the families, the young Juliet and Romeo) and the fateful sequence of events that create the tragedy (the Balcony Scene, death of Tybalt and the deaths of the young lovers). In the former, Bringuier seemed at home, conducting with purpose, and a light touch, but in the latter, the music refused to soar, grounded in rigidity. In the more exposed transitions, it came across as indecisive, and climaxes, particularly in the glorious Balcony Scene, seemed to pass too quickly. Even Tybalt’s death seemed restrained. 

While the Tchaikovsky Fantasy Overture benefited from a primed atmosphere, the spontaneity of the Rococo Variations seemed to have been lost and the lingering romanticism missing in the Prokofiev was also not to be found here. It was a crisp reading, tidy and reserved and the famous love theme was ever beautiful, if not particularly radiant. 

The LA Phil seemed reserved, by their standards, but the brass in particular shone in Prokofiev’s masterfully colorful orchestration. On the whole, the issue of dynamic range at the Bowl may have played as much a part in the music’s impact as anything else.

It was a peculiar evening of music making, with the highlight being Narek Hakhnazaryan’s unforgettable debut and dedication. While that may not have been how the evening was scripted to be, it was all the more remarkable because of it.