Nikita Mndoyants – Pianist, Transcriber, Composer shines in powerful US debuts

At EURASIA FESTIVAL, which launched in the fall of 2017, immediately representing an important NYC performance podium with viable space at the National Opera Center, young Mndoyants’ recital was presented among the series’ strong concentration on Russian artists, many of whom are former colleagues of the festival’s co-founder, pianist Aza Sydykov, from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.

Presenting artists such as those from the former Soviet regions and showcasing their broad heritage and the area’s fascinating culture has become part of Eurasia’s unique cultural mission, and an outgrowth of individual initiatives. One of these is the Kyrgyz American Foundation, founded by Eurasia Festival’s own creators.

In close collaboration with his wife, the American Opera Soprano Nikoleta Rallis, and the American pianist and producer Jonathan Levin, Sydykov founded the foundation in 2016. “Our trio is equally involved with the festival and the foundation and there would be nothing like it in existence if not for the tireless work of all three of us,” says Sydykov.

Initially the festival was presented by Olympia Arts, Sydykov’ and Rallis’ performing arts consulting company. Starting this March, the festival will be directly associated with the foundation, which, supported by a prominent team of advisors on its board will help to promote the Kyrgyzstan region’s rich culture, and further the artistic exchange between Kyrgyzstan and the US.

There exists an extraordinary talent pool among the artists presented at the series (see my recent article about pianist Vyacheslav Gryaznov) – many hail from Russian conservatories via American academia, and are en route to claim their international careers.

Nikita says, “Slava (Vyacheslav Gryaznov), Aza and I shared the same teacher, Nicholai Arnoldovich Petrov, at the Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatory,” where Nikita has also taught orchestration since 2013. “With Slava, we performed some of his beautiful arrangements of symphonic works for two pianos together at the Central Music School. Slava’s transcription of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring are just formidable,” he adds.

In 2004, Nikita gave his first chamber music performances with the Borodin Quartet, when he attended the prestigious Verbier Festival Academy, meeting some of the greatest performers alive; he remembers being especially impressed with Martha Argerich’s performance there. Just recently, they met again when she performed in a rare engagement in Cleveland, with Cleveland’s own Russian import: pianist and mentor Sergej Babayan. Keeping in good company seems as important as winning medals. Before the Cleveland, Mndoyants had won the 2007 Paderewsky International Piano Competition and was a finalist at the 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition.

With his visa valid for three years after winning Cleveland’s competition in 2016, Nikita is determined to make use of his time. He has continued to develop his interest in chamber music with such ensembles as the Brentano, Ebene, Zemlinsky and Szymanowski quartets. It is mainly for chamber music and smaller piano works that he finds inspiration for his own compositions. “It is too late for large piano works, like Sonatas etc. It seems almost impossible to add something larger to the canon,” he feels. “I performed last year at the prestigious Great Hall of the Composers at the Moscow Conservatory, and just a few weeks ago my violin concerto was performed at the Moscow Conservatory by professor Vinnitsky. I also performed recently in St. Petersburg with Charles Dutoit, and will soon return to perform again, which means a lot to me, since it’s so important to not just play once at a place.”

Around 40 concert opportunities are generously associated with the Cleveland competition, which only happens every four years, leaving enough time to concentrate on furthering their winners’ careers, and sparing another year in preparation of the next competition.

Last June, as part of one of these Cleveland winner’s concerts, Nikita performed at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall to rave reviews, promising “a stunning start for Mndoyants as he embarks on an international career,” and lauding a “rising talent that comes onto the scene so polished that there isn’t much to say other than to simply applaud it” (Pianistmagazine.com, Bachtrack.com). The June 2017 concert had been his New York debut, and at that same time, his Steinway CD was released, garnering him a Grammophon review as well. “This was of course very important for me, as it helped spread the word internationally,” he says.

Next season will bring Nikita to the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, following his guest artist appearance last summer at the Ruhr Festival. He has also performed several times in Paris (Salle Cortot and Auditorium du Louvre du Paris), Brussels (Bozar Centre), and Luxembourg (Philharmonie), and has been artist-in-residence at the French Wissembourg Festival since 2012. Here, in addition to performing, he oversaw performances of his own compositions, which have been gaining interest from many artists including violinist Daniel Hope, and are being published by Composers, Muzyka and Jurgenson.

Following recordings for solo piano and chamber ensemble on the Classical Records and Praga Digitals labels, his latest CD on the Steinway label, features three cycles of miniatures: Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126, and Prokofiev’s Sarcasms. Jed Distler, who wrote the liner notes, remarks: “The time honored cliché ‘Good things come in small packages,’ most decidedly applies to the three groups of works comprising this release.” While comparable in their shorthand dimension, the challenges of each of these cycles are so varied, revealing the performer’s deep understanding of each of if its thematically fundamentally different components. Their precise execution is rendered with crystal clear pronunciation, and an impressive range of resolute vitality; all while offering an astoundingly nuanced color palette.

In performance, one can observe how the choreography of Nikita’s hands generate such an impressive polyphonic tone production, corresponding to the utmost command of a large authoritative power; his gestures are calculated, yet fluid, following every whim of a musical thought instantly. At times, his performative proceeding is brought to a total halt in midair – with both hands hovering over the keys for a split second in a breathtaking moment for the audience – before it is released again, continuing its rhythmic flow into the keys.

It is clear that there is great imagination at play and that goes for his performance as well as for his skilled compositions; Mndoyants also won first prize at the Myaskovsky International Competition for composers. At his performance at Eurasia Festival, Nikita’s own Intermezzo received its US premiere. The brevity of the piece follows his aforementioned conviction as the only possible contemporary form to explore for the genre “as did Prokofiev or Ligety.” He describes his composition style as “not being radical.” He says, “there is a tonal bass line, but complex harmonies inspired by composers like Lutosławsky or Weinberg. The latter, for example, especially influenced my violin concerto, and I also love rhythmic constellations as featured in works by Ligety or Stravinsky.”

At the festival, where we met before and during his rehearsal, he adds: “I am so happy to partake in Aza’s festival, as he really got a great idea to focus on the art of this area, which incorporates such wide and varied regional cultural elements. The so-called ‘Russian School of Music,’ which musically dominated these previous republics, has huge connections with the European culture of classical music, but also carries East Asian folkloristic elements. There are so many influences, for example Armenian ingredients and the fascination with the Orient, which in my opinion connects a lot of the Russian composers,” he explains. “The Composers’ Union, which was founded under Stalin, was such a unique organization, which brought about a great exchange and cross-pollination between composers. In the sixties and seventies, composers like Schnittke, Gubaidulina or Denisov, who by now are already considered to be the ‘classical’ composers, continued to unify and represent a layer of culture that carries distinct features. But there is also a specific musical mentality and understanding of what music is, one’s approach to sound, structural ideas ….an essential musical identity.”

Luckily, there will be more opportunities for us to familiarize ourselves further with such talent brought about by this identity; next in concert at Eurasia Festival will be master pianist and mentor Pavel Nersessian on February 17th. Nersessian will also be presented by Russian pianists Vassily Primakov and Oxana Mikhailoff at their new Sparkill Concert Series on February 11th.