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June 6 composer birthday: Aram Khachaturian

June 6 composer birthday: Aram Khachaturian featured image

William Kapell, the great interpreter of Khachaturian’s piano music.

Aram Khachaturian, a Soviet Armenian composer became known for his colourful, virtuosic, and exotic music that put Armenia on the map. His first major work was his Piano Concerto (often played by advanced music students at festivals and competitions), which was followed by his Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto, and a few symphonies and ballet music, in particular Gayane and Spartacus. One of his most famous pieces to this day is the “Sabre Dance” from Gayane, used often in popular culture and figure skating routines for exhibition shows.

While there are several recordings of the Piano Concerto, the recording by American pianist William Kapell remains the standard. He became so associated with this work, he was dubbed “Kapell Khachaturian”. His life was tragically cut short by a plane crash in 1953 when the pianist was only 31 years old. Kapell had a phenomenal technique, and showed impatience with musicians who were superficial or didn’t play at their full potential. His playing was intense, exciting, and his brooding good looks didn’t hurt, either. My father, perhaps the world’s biggest classical piano fan, often told me about Kapell’s recording of this concerto, and instructed me to listen out for his extreme commitment to the work. We often had these chats about music in the car, when I’d tag along as a little kid on his Saturday errands, something I loved to do. My father would get worked up and teary talking about the terrible loss of this incredible pianist, who made Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto sound like the greatest thing ever written at the moment you heard it. I remember thinking that maybe, the mark of a great musician is to make whatever piece he/she’s playing sound like the greatest work ever written (I had this thought decades later when I heard Garrick Ohlsson play the Grieg Piano Concerto. So thrilling! Powerful! Majestic!).

I am very grateful that dad taught me about “Kapell Khachaturian”.

William Kapell with Serge Koussevitsky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1946.

Aram Khachaturian was born June 6, 1903 in Tiflis, in what is now Georgia, and died May 1, 1978 in what is now St. Petersberg, Russia.

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