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University of Redlands pianist Sophia Ohanian gives inspired performance

02/24/14 • by Betty Tyler • The Redlands Daily Facts

Three cheers and then some for pianist Sophia Ohanian, who gave an electrifying performance Saturday night with the Redlands Symphony Orchestra.

If you were not in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel to hear her play Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto in D-flat major, you missed an evening of exciting, powerful and moving music-making.

This was the concert in the Redlands Symphony’s season that featured the winner of the University of Redlands Concerto Competition, and Ohanian, a 20-year-old junior who studies piano with Professor Louanne Long, took the top honors in this year’s contest.

Hearing her play the Khachaturian concerto, it was obvious why she won. She took command of the music and played with power, confidence and musical sensitivity, as if she owned that concerto.

It’s a piece that calls for a lot of energy and technical skill, and she was overflowing with both — not showing off technique for the sake of technique, but using it to bring excitement and life to the music.

She was equally in command of the more lyrically expressive passages, playing as if the music were her own heartfelt statement. And in a sense, she probably does “own” the Khachaturian Piano Concerto.

Ohanian is of Armenian heritage, as was Aram Khachaturian. According to the notes in the program, she feels a deep affinity with Khachaturian’s music, and it was a childhood dream of hers to play this concerto with an orchestra.

Khachaturian, who was born to an Armenian family in 1903, spent his life in what became the Soviet Union. The Redlands Symphony’s program notes mention his support of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union after the declaration of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The notes also emphasize his use of elements of Armenian folk music in his compositions and say that Khachaturian, who died in 1978, remains Armenia’s most beloved composer.

In Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, written in 1936, you can hear music that stayed within the bounds of what was approved in the Soviet Union, but you can also hear some of the dissonance characteristic of the middle years of the 20th century and some Armenian influences.

The combination is powerful, occasionally even boisterous, and sometimes perhaps tantalizingly exotic to ears more in tune with the “Londonderry Air” than with Armenian folk music.

I was delighted when I heard that Saturday’s concert would include a pianist of Armenian heritage playing the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, especially because I have a bit of Armenian background myself. My mother’s parents came to the United States from Armenia some time before 1910, when Khachaturian was still a child.

I was even more delighted to hear Ohanian’s performance of the Khachaturian concerto — as was the rest of the audience. At the end of the concerto, the audience erupted into many more than three loud cheers, and applauded and cheered Ohanian back on stage twice.

The Redlands Symphony Orchestra was also a delight for the ears and the spirit Saturday night.

Co Nguyen, the Redlands Symphony’s assistant conductor, directed the orchestra, which supported and matched the excitement of Ohanian’s playing in the Khachaturian concerto.

The orchestra also played Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” Overture and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, music that was chosen for the concert before the concerto competition.

Both are solid standards of the orchestral repertoire that could balance just about any concerto the contest winner would have prepared.

The “Fingal’s Cave” Overture, which opened the program, is a musical description of Fingal’s Cave in Scotland’s Hebrides Islands. The orchestral sound undulated like ocean waves and painted the dramatic beauty of the islands.

The concert ended with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Many of us have heard that most familiar of symphonies more times than we can keep track of. What can you say about one more performance of Beethoven’s Fifth?

It turns out I can say the Redlands Symphony’s performance of the Fifth proved once more why it is enduringly popular and that there’s magic in live performance.

What I might have expected to be a too familiar, ho-hum experience, especially after the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, was engaging, energetic and refreshing.

On top of one more cheer for Sophia Ohanian, here are three enthusiastic cheers for the Redlands Symphony Orchestra and Assistant Conductor Co Nguyen.

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