For pianist Sergei Babayan, it all started with Rachmaninoff.
In a video interview to promote the pianist’s 2020 album, “Rachmaninoff,” Babayan tells the story of how his father brought home gifts every time he returned from an out-of-town trip. One time, the gift was a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.
Of course, Babayan began listening to the album.
“And it’s amazing that from the first time, the beginning of (the) first movement, it did something to me, which is, you know, it’s beyond imaginable,” he said in the video. “No matter how I try to describe it, you really cannot describe that feeling when you know that this is who you are, you are going to be a musician, you are going to be a pianist.”
And since that moment, the 61-year-old Babayan has carved out a distinguished career behind the keyboard, as a solo performer, as a performer in duos with legendary artists such as Martha Argerich, and as a teacher (most notably, perhaps, with piano wunderkind Daniil Trifonov).
Babayan is scheduled to perform Sunday afternoon in Corvallis as the final event in this season’s Corvallis-OSU Piano International Steinway Piano Series. It’s no accident that the program for his 4 p.m. recital at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center features music by Rachmaninoff. (See these program notes for more details about Sunday’s recital by Babayan, who was not available for an interview with Corvallis-OSU Piano International.)
Born in Armenia, Babayan started his musical education at age 6 and later studied at the Moscow Conservatory. He traveled to the United States in 1989, and that same year won the Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition, a victory that was followed by first prize at the Palm Beach International Piano Competition. The award was shared with Bulgarian pianist Lyudmil Mikhailov Angelov, and both musicians won the right to perform solo recitals in March 1990 at Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center. A New York Times review of that dual recital praised Babayan’s “spectacular technique, some theatrical interpretive ideas and a seeming fondness for the Technicolor timbre and enormous loudness of his Yamaha piano.”
Babayan followed up the Palm Beach victory with similar first-place prizes at the inaugural Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 1991 and the Scottish International Piano Competition in 1992.
Babayan, now an artist-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music and a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School, has performed worldwide at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Konzerthaus Berlin and Munich’s Prinzregententheater. He is a frequent performer at festivals such as the Salzburger Festspiele, Verbier Festival and Festival de La Roque-d’Antheron.
In 2018, he signed a recording contract with classical music powerhouse Deutsche Grammophon. His first album for the label was “Prokofiev for Two,” a duo effort with Argerich, which featured his transcriptions of the composer’s works, reworked for piano four hands. His latest album, “Rachmaninoff,” features the pianist performing solo and includes works he plans to perform at Sunday’s recital in Corvallis.
Babayan, who’s now a U.S. citizen, isn’t one of those artists who spends a lot of time on social media. But a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he took to Facebook for a denunciation of what he called “a war waged by Putin and his gangster regime that I despise with every fibre of my being.”
He went on to discuss how music has the power to threaten and push back against corrupt regimes: “As artists, we inherently understand that nationalism and the rule of brute force are evil. The Soviet oppression that terrorized my early years had understood very well that even the instrumental music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the music of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers were a serious threat to their regime, a regime built on lies. Precisely because music is a powerful tool in the fight for truth, we should hear this music that was banned then in their own country. Every note I play, every bit of music that I make is for me an act of peaceful resistance against the enemies of truth, against those who abuse even the arts for the evil purposes of their cynical, kleptocratic regime of violence and lies.”
If You Go
WHAT: Pianist Sergei Babayan in concert, sponsored by OSU-Corvallis Piano International.
WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday, May 8.
WHERE: The LaSells Stewart Center, 875 SW 26th St. on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $25, $28 at the door. Click here for information about purchasing tickets.