He has played for Prince Charles in Buckingham Palace, launched a foundation in war-torn Afghanistan and just released his first album on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, a collection of Barber and Khachaturian. But Mikhail Simonyan would probably rather be jumping out of an airplane.
“If I wasn't a classical violinist, I would have wanted to spend more time on adventure sports,” said the 25-year-old from Siberia.
Simonyan also has also taken flying lessons and is known to ride a motorcycle rather than take a cab to concerts. He has attracted the most attention for an initiative he started in 2010 called "Beethoven, Not Bullets," to assist students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. “We all understand that the infrastructure needs to be rebuilt in that country -- the roads, the buildings,” he said. “But sometimes the government forgets about the cultural side. So what this program does is provide something on a much higher spiritual level.”
Afghanistan National Institute of Music is Afghanistan's only music school, run since 2007 by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, a native Afghan who studied music at Monash University, Australia, and the Moscow State Conservatory. The money raised by Simonyan's initiative is designed to cover tuition for general and music education at the school and also provide a stipend for families, who in many cases were dependent on their children working in the streets to support them.
The violinist visited the school in 2010 and said he hopes to return next year.
Simonyan was born in 1985 in Novosibirsk, Russia, the same city where violinists Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin grew up. He began playing the violin at age five and by 13, was making his debut in the Szymanowsky concerto with the American Russian Youth Artists Orchestra. It was his first visit to New York and it prompted him to relocate to America rather than pursue his studies in Moscow or St Petersburg. His mother moved from Novosibirsk to be with him for his first few years of study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
After releasing a solo album of sonatas by Prokofiev, Simonyan devotes half of his major label debut to Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978), arguably the greatest classical Armenian composer. For the performance, Simonyan commissioned a new cadenza from the Armenian composer Artur Avanesov. “The [original] cadenzas were kind of sticking out for me because they were short and the only thing that you could prove was your fingers could move fast,” he said. The new cadenza brings out the spirituality inherent in Armenian music," he added.
The album’s title, “Two Souls,” is meant to suggest his own personal dualities: “Khachaturian and Barber, Armenian and American. My mother was Armenian and I grew up here in the States.”
Does this interest in national identity and musical ambassadorship translate to other aspects of his life? “I love politics,” Simonyan said. “Oh boy, I do.
“Hats off to Putin,” he continued, unafraid of raising a controversial point. “He’s doing a lot of great stuff with the classical music industry there and building up the country. I think they have ways to go. Now they’ve figured out Moscow and St. Petersburg and now they need to spread that into the region."
Simonyan recently moved to Armenia's capital of Yeveran and is slated to get married in December.
“It’s great to live in Armenia," he said. "It’s a very small nation and I think it’s great that I’m starting a family there and I get to know that country. I tell you - coming back from the tours and getting into Armenia, you get into a completely different world.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise