New Heights for Hakobyan

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 11, 2024
2023 Marilyn Horne Song Competition winners Brian Cho and Navasard Hakobyan (courtesy photo)

You might say Navasard Hakobyan had a pretty good summer in Santa Barbara last year. The Armenian baritone not only made his debut as Marcello, one of the principal roles in La Boheme at the Granada, he also secured the most coveted and longstanding prize of the festival in the Music Academy’s 2023 Marilyn Horne Song Competition. 

“My summer (here) was an incredible and transformative experience,” Hakobyan said in an email interview. “Working with leading professionals in the field significantly contributed to my growth as an artist and the opportunity to learn, perform and collaborate with such talented individuals has had a profound impact on my career.”

The thing is, Hakobyan has only soared to new heights in the last 10 months. The baritone finished up his second year at Houston Grand Opera’s Butler Studio, and has now performed at the company in Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, and The Marriage of Figaro, among others. On March 8th, he claimed first place in Dallas Opera’s National Vocal Competition, and a week later secured a particularly prestigious place as a winner of the 2024 Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition. 

“Every time I participate in a competition, my focus is always on delivering my best performance and conveying the stories from the stage,” Hakobyan said. “Winning is always a gratifying validation of my hard work and dedication.” 

To top things off at MAW last summer, Hakobyan also managed to secure an Armenian family as his compeers – MAW’s peerless program at the heart of the Academy culture.  The Compeer Program pairs every one of the 134 fellows with local residents, who then follow their fellow through master classes and performances, meeting up for dinner and other events and connecting over the shared love of music. Sharing a cultural background was a bonus.

“I was so happy when I heard that my compeers would be Armenians,” Hakobyan said. “Building connections with them has been incredibly heartwarming, and I cherish our bond dearly… It’s part of why the Music Academy has left an indelible mark on both my personal and professional journey.” 

Next Thursday, June 13, local audiences will get to share some of that Armenian culture when Hakobyan returns to Miraflores to perform at Hahn in recital with Marilyn Horne Song Competition co-winner and vocal pianist Brian Cho, as Armenian music will be a significant part of the concert. A pair of Armenian folk songs will open the performance, including Komitas’ “Apricot Tree,” which the baritone said has a lot of significance back home. 

“I am very proud to present my culture, history, and music to my beloved audience,” said Hakobyan, who graduated from the vocal studio of Armenian State Song Theater and is currently completing a master’s degree at Yerevan Conservatory. “This is particularly reflected in “Apricot Tree,” as the apricot is a symbol of Armenia. Thousands of people visit my country just to taste our apricots, and the apricot color is also featured on our flag, representing the creative talent and hard work of the Armenian people. I will also sing “Oh Rose” by Alexander Spendiaryan, which is one of my favorite songs. It tells the story of a boy who wants to pluck a rose and give it to the girl he loves.” 

The recital will also feature a reprise of all three works performed by Hakobyan and Cho in last summer’s Horne competition – Francesco Paolo Tosti’s “Ideale,” “Christ is Risen” from Fifteen Romances, Op. 26, by Rachmaninoff, and Schumann’s “Liederkreis, Op. 39, No. 3, ‘Waldesgespräch’” – plus additional songs by those three, and pieces from Sibelius and Strauss. But the centerpiece is likely to be the world premiere of a new art song commissioned by MAW, “Crisis”by Joel Thompson, the Emmy award-winning Atlanta-based composer, conductor, pianist, and educator best known for the choral work “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” – a work that quotes the last words of unarmed Black men who were killed by the police. “Crisis” is based on an Armenian poem and addresses the ongoing issues in the country. 

“The collaborative process with Joel was truly fulfilling, and I’m proud to have been a part of bringing this piece to life,” Hakobyan said. 

Looking forward, the baritone plans on drawing on his MAW summer for future roles, including another turn as La Boheme’s Marcello at Semperoper Dresden in Germany. 

“The foundational experience at the Music Academy has profoundly shaped my approach to the role, enhancing my performance and interpretation,” he said. “I am genuinely excited about the future of my career because I am passionate about what I do. Singing brings me immense joy, and I am eager to perform roles that resonate deeply with me. I look forward to embracing new opportunities and sharing my love for music with others.”

Szuyu Su, the winner of the 2023 Solo Piano Competition, helps launch the festival

Wednesday, June 12: It’s opening day at the Music Academy of the West and what better way to kick things off than with the esteemed and estimable Takács Quartet, which was formed in 1975 at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest by four students, including cellist András Fejér, who remains the only original member of the ensemble. The fearsome foursome will be celebrating their 50th season in 2024-25, but first they have some summer obligations, including a longstanding residency here in Montecito. Today, the Quartet – whose most recent member is former MAW faculty violist and Camerata Pacifica principal Richard O’Neill – conducts the first chamber music masterclass of the MAW festival, where the fellow quartets will perform and receive coaching prior to those ensembles performing more formally back at Hahn on Tuesday night. (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)… Tonight, the 2024 performances launch with another look back at the last summer’s festival via a recital by Szuyu Su, the winner of the 2023 Solo Piano Competition, who will play the world premiere of Anthony Cheung’s “In Place, at Hand,” the commissioned piece that was a part of her prize. For the rest of her recital, Su – who boasts a bachelor’s degree from Curtis, a master’s from Juilliard, and is pursuing her doctorate at Rice – has chosen Chopin, a solo piano favorite, for the rest of her recital, playing “Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2;” “Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38,” and all 24 of the composer’s Preludes. (7:30 pm;
Hahn Hall; $40)

Thursday, June 13: Solo instrumental masterclasses make their 2024 debut with the violin, most popular of string instruments, as former 30-year New York Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow leads the opportunity for people to observe a one-on-one teaching session between a professional artist and fellow. (1:30 pm; Lehmann Hall; $10)

The esteemed and estimable Takács Quartet returns (photo by Amanda Tipton)

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