Konstantin Aghaparonovich Orbelian was born on July 29, 1928 in the town of Armavir.
Konstantin’s talent for music was revealed in the early age. His elder brother, Harry often played the piano picking up the melodies of then-popular songs and playing by ear. He was amazed to see his 5 year old brother easily strumming the melodies he heard him play. The boy was sent to a school for gifted children at the Baku Conservatory. However, he studies there for a short time. The year 1936 came. The Orbelian family didn’t escape the bloody repressions that had started in the country. At first the boy’s father, Aghaparon Sultanovich Orbelian was arrested and executed by shooting. Then, two years later, in 1938, his mother Sofia Mikhailovna Atarbekova was arrested as well and sentenced to 5 years of exile. She was rehabilitated only in 1953.
Harry and Konstantin were left alone, becoming social outcasts or so-called “children of the people’s enemies” overnight. Konstantin was immediately expelled from the “prestigious” musical school. The boys had to survive somehow. Harry succeeded in finding a job as a school teacher, while the 11 year old Konstantin earned on the side as a musical accompanist to gymnasts in the sporting society “Burevestnik”. In 1940 Harry was drafted into the army. Two years later World War II began. In 1942 Konstantin was taken into the jazz orchestra of aviation school #8 as a pianist and accordionist, which had formed a rather good musical collective by the time. The 4 year old boy became the foster child of the military orchestra. During the band’s tour to Yerevan, the Armenian jazz musicians “discovered” the young improviser. The talented musician was noticed by Artemi Aivazyan and invited into his orchestra. Orbelian recalls the beginning of their joint work with humor. Invited by a telegram from Ayvazyan himself, Konstantin hurried to the maestro with an inappropriate appearance. In addition, with his rather impudent character he told some of his critical observations straight off about the latest performance of the Armenian orchestra. Ayvazyan listened to the young man and, accepting the challenge in his own way, “pushed” Orbelian out on the stage during the next concert without any prior rehearsal. However, not only didn’t Orbelian lose himself, but also proved that he can play and improvise in quite difficult circumstances.
Orbelian was thus invited to join the orchestra. Being in the orchestra led by Ayvazyan, who became his “childhood friend”, was a good school for young Orbelian. The Armenian Pop Orchestra was considered to be one of the best Soviet ensembles of the time, characterized with high professionalism, spectacular performances and a focus on traditional Armenian music. According to Orbelian himself, it was during this period that a firm foundation was laid for his future activities.
Parallel to being a pianist, starting from 1945 Konstantin Orbelian tried his luck as a composer, as well. He made arrangements of Armenian folk songs for the orchestra and composed his own songs, the first one being the “Lullaby”. Konstantin became known as one of the best jazz musicians not only in Armenia, but also abroad. During the orchestra’s tour to Moscow in 1948 Orbelian received support from the stars of the time, A. Tsfasman and V. Ludvikovski, who later became Konstantin’s friend. In the same year Orbelian received invitation to join the famous Leonid Utesov Jazz Band. No matter how promising the future could be, Orbelian declined the invitation in favor of Ayvazyan’s offer to become the conductor of the Armenian State Pop Orchestra.
Despite being closed behind the iron curtains, some things about jazz managed to “leak” into the USSR. Like many music fans of the time, Konstantin risked his freedom and illegally brought western music records into the country. Secretly listening to Glenn Miller, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, the young musician learned from them new ways of musical thinking and performance styles. Orbelian’s passion for jazz and piano improvisation, considered then as propagation of alien ideology, started causing difficulties in his work. He was almost blamed for ideological sabotage, being demanded to stop spreading “American jazz music alien to Soviet people”.
It was at this time that visiting his ancestors’ homeland Orbelian descovered the intellectual wealth of Armenia: Avetik Isahakian’s poetry, Martiros Sarian’s paintings and certainly Aram Khachaturian’s music. Acquaintance with each of Aram Ilich’s compositions became a special event in Orbelian’s professional and spiritual life. The master’s works became a guide into the world of music and pushed the limits of understanding art. In 1948 Konstantin got personally acquainted with the great composer. Aram Ilich got interested in the talented young man and greatly supported him for a long time keeping an eye on his progress. At the same time, Orbelian befriended young and popular Armenian composers Alexander Harutyunyan, Arno Babajanian and Edward Mirzoyan, representatives of the unique national school famous all around the country. All these circumstances led Konstantin to adopting a rather daring decision to rapidly change his life. The young man at the peak of popularity left everything for the sake of further study.
In 1952 Konstantin Orbelian left the Armenian Pop Orchestra and enrolled into composer Edward Mirzoyan’s class at the Musical College after R. Melikyan. Combining study with work, Orbelian started working at the Yerevan Opera and Ballet Theater as a concertmaster. Three ballet miniatures named “Flying”, “The Monument”, and “We are for Peace” were created during this period. The miniatures became very popular and were performed for several years in a row (choreographer V. Varkovitski). Graduating from the college with honors in 1954, he entered the State Conservatory. In the same year Orbelian formed an instrumental quintet on the radio. It was a step towards returning to his favorite world of jazz.
In 1955 Orbelian tried his hand in a new genre: together with A. Harutyunyan they composed music for the movie “The Heart Sings”. The songs instantly became hits around the USSR and received Aram Khachaturian’s compliments. In 1956 Konstantin Orbelian finished the String Quartet he had started when in college. The composition had such expressiveness, maturity and integrity that caught the attention of the musicians of the Komitas Quartet, who had a reputation of most demanding. They brilliantly performed Orbelian’s String Quartet in Moscow during the Decade of Armenian Literature and Art festival (1956), which was deservedly recognized as one of the greatest achievements of Armenian chamber music.In the same year, headed by D. Shostakovich, the jury of the 6th International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow awarded Konstantin the Grand Prix and gold medal for the String Quartet.
At that time the Armenian orchestra led by A. Ayvazyan was experiencing crisis and needed a flow of fresh ideas and a vigorous leader able to revive the orchestra. Konstantin Orbelian was offered to take its leadership. After long hesitation, Konstantin agreed and was appointed the conductor and art director of the Armenian State Pop Orchestra. The beginning was quite difficult. Orbelian had to break the stereotypes rooted in the orchestra, sometimes being obliged to use an imperative management style. In fact, the whole staff of the orchestra was changed: 18 band members had to leave. It took 4 months to prepare a new program. A. Babajanyan and A. Harutyunyan offered their new compositions to the orchestra. Especially for orchestra Orbelian composed a piece called “Dilijan” and the “Concert Jazz-March”, which was to be loved from its first performance and to become kind of a visit card for the band being played at the beginning and the end of their performances. Konstantin also made a jazzy interpretation of A. Khachaturian’s song “Garoon Yerevan” and fully transposed to jazz the famous “Saber Dance” of the same author. The orchestra’s “secret weapon” turned out to be Jacques Douvalian, the temperamental singer invited by Orbelian from France. As a result, the new program of the orchestra stood the test with triumphwith performances in Moscow, Tbilisi, and Baku.
1956 was a significant year for Konstantin. The young musician became a member of the Union of Composers of the USSR.
Konstantin became the first musician to succeed in realizing the principles of blending modern jazz with the national melodic basis. In the same year Orbelian got acquainted with Michel Legrand. In 1957 Konstantin received the best present in his life on his birthday. He miraculously found his elder brother, Harry, who was considered killed during the war.
At the end of 1960 Orbelian decided to temporarily leave the orchestra because its heavy schedule didn’t allow finishing his education. For the year given to him for the preparation of his diploma work, Orbelian wrote a symphony. For any musician it is the highest kind of creative work, and for Orbelian it became the happiest event in his work as a composer. Warm, vigorous and delicate at the same time, the music so typical to Orbelian conquered the hearts of both the musicians and the listeners. Orbelian’s symphony was performed in Yerevan and Moscow many times, was awarded the highest prize of the 1962 All-Union Festival Competition of Young Composers in Moscow, as well as performed and recorded by the State Symphonic Orchestra conducted by Yuri Aranovich. It was later performed in many countries of the world.
Graduating from the conservatory in 1961, Konstantin Orbelian returned to his work with the orchestra. Armenian jazz started appearing on the international scene. 1966 saw the orchestra’s first concert overseas, as part of the Days of the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia. Next year the orchestra received warm acceptance in Poland.
During this period Orbelian wrote an instrumental jazz composition created in the new wave style, His “Polyphonic Prelude” for 4 trombones and an alto saxophone was included in the repertoires of various Big Bands, including the famous Czech jazz band conducted by Karel Vlach. The piece received an award at a contest of jazz compositions held on the radio in Czochoslovakia in 1964. In parallel, Konstantin Orbelian didn’t forget about serious music.
In 1968 the“Celebration Overture” for the Symphonic Orchestra was written, which would later receive an award at the All-Union Competition of Symphonic Compositions.
In 1969 Orbelian created the “Immortality” ballet (choreographic symphony), an unexpectedly tragic piece from the author of jazz compositions – dedicated to war victims. The ballet was performed in two renditions at the Spendiarov Opera and Ballet Theater in Yerevan: in 1969 (conductor A. Voskanyan, choreographer M. Martirosyan) and in 1975 (conductor A. Katanyan, choreographer A. Asatryan). The second rendition was made for the 30th Anniversary of the Victory at World War II, and has been maintained in the repertoire of the theater ever since. It was warmly received by the public during the theater’s tour to Moscow and Leningrad. The Yerevan performance, with all its creators and the author of the music, was awarded the 1st prize at the All-Union Competition of Musical Performances dedicated to the 30th Anniversary of the Victory (1975). In 1978 the Tbilisi Theater of Opera and Ballet also staged “Immortality”.
In the beginning of the 70’s the Armenian orchestra gained triumphant popularity in the USSR and abroad. It performed on the best stages of the world together with popular jazz bands. Often the performances had competitive nature. For the first time the Armenian musicians stood such a test in 1973 in the Federal Republic of Germany during the Days of Soviet Culture. They had to play for 6 hours in turn with one of the most famous bands, the Cologne Orchestra of the Radio and TV led by Werner Muller. The public and the press were unanimous in their decision: the Armenian jazzmen were better than their foreign colleagues.
In 1975 the Armenian State Pop Orchestra was the first among the Soviet jazz collectives to visit the native land of jazz, the USA. The Armenian jazzmen gave 25 concerts in major US cities: Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and Providence. The final concert was held in New York’s Lincoln Center. After the very first concert the rumors about the orchestra from Yerevan spread around the country.
“The Orbelian orchestra has shattered the myth about the prohibition or secret existence of the Soviet Jazz.” (New York Times).
“Under the leadership of K. Orbelian the orchestra and the soloists demonstrated a high class musical performance with a rich repertoire of own works and compositions by world famous jazz composers such as Ellington, Basie, etc. The orchestrations of original themes of big band jazz by all means equal the best of what is offered by Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, and Thad Jones / Mel Lewis orchestras.” (San Francisco Examiner).
Calling the performance of Armenian musicians “jazz with oriental colors”, famous jazz critic John Wasserman stated that “the performance was at least as significant in the cultural sense as, for example, those of the Bolshoi Theater or the Leningrad Kirov Ballet, if not more”.
The US tour ended with a grand triumph. In honor of Armenian jazz a reception was held in the United Nations Organization with the participation of American jazz stars.
In 1976 the orchestra received an invitation for a concert tour in France. The Nice-Marseille-Lyon tour concluded with 11concerts in Paris in such prestigious concert halls as La Plielle and Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. “The oriental colors” of Orbelian’s jazz provided him with great popularity in the East as well. The orchestra visited almost all the regions there, returning to some countries for several times. It was loved in India, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Afganistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon (with 44 sold-out concerts in Lebanon only). Africa, namely Kenya and Ethiopia – were on the agenda as well. Orbelian had an amazing talent for preparing in the shortest timelines musical performances of every ethnic culture, including interpretations of Ethiopian melodies quite difficult to combine with European jazz. The Ethiopian audience didn’t want to let go the Armenian jazz, applauding the musicians’ confidence in playing the songs that the Ethiopians knew from the cradle. The orchestra toured the former Socialist countries and participated in festivals time and again: the Baltic countries, the Democratic Republic of Germany (DRG), Bulgaria (“Golden Orpheus”). For 11 years in a row Konstantin Orbelian acted as a member of jury at “Golden Orpheus”. Brilliant was the performance of the Armenian jazz at the International Jazz Festival in Belgrade in 1977. Competing with the orchestra were the jazz bands of trumpeter Freddy Hubbard and pianist George Duke. The performances of Orbelian’s band became a real sensation. As a result, the Armenian State Pop Orchestra won the Grand Prix of the Belgrade Festival. For three more times the orchestra became a laureate of international jazz festivals in Poland, the Democratic and Federal Republics of Germany.
Acting as the leader of the Armenian State Pop Orchestra for 36 years, Konstantin Orbelian not only maintained the orchestra as a long-liver, but more importantly succeeded in forming a team of like-minded people. From the big band of the previous years the orchestra turned into a modern jazz band always fine tuned to the transformations of such an ever-changing genre as jazz. It was all due to the reformations within the band timely implemented by Orbelian, as well as the adjustment of the instrumental basis, the constant renovation of the repertoire and the change of the performing style. It was also thanks to the strict selection of musicians that feel the nature of jazz improvisation. Orbelian proved to have a special feel for finding out gifted artists. It was not without reason that the orchestra earned the name of a “bank of talent”. The orchestra became popular and gained worldwide fame. The repertoire was enhanced from simple interpretations of traditional songs and dances to large-scale instrumental compositions of high class and contemporary standards. The musicians started playing compositions by Buddy Rich, Count Basie, A. Khachaturian, A. Ayvazyan, A. Babajanyan, A. Harutyunyan and many others. The band toured all the republics and regions of the former USSR with concerts: Siberia, the Far East, the Baltic and Volga regions, Transcaucasus and North Caucasus, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Moldova, and so on. In Moscow alone, in the Central concert hall “Russia” Orbelian’s orchestra performed 14 years in a row. Touring abroad became an integral part of the band’s activities. The Armenian State Pop Orchestra traveled to all the corners of the world performing in 40 countries.
In addition to concerts and touring activities, Konstantic Orbelian was a prolific composer, too. In 1972 Orbelian’s rendition of Buddy Rich’s “Falling Stars” (also known as “Sunrise”) appeared. At the same time Orbelian heavily experimented with various jazz styles, including with then-new jazz-rock (fusion): “Sunrise on Sevan”, “Come to Zangezur” (Armenian style compositions, 1981), “Olympic Moscow” (1980), “The Dreams” (impressionist-jazz, 1982), “Vocalization” (bebop, also known as “Variation for Voice and Orchestra”, 1982), “Jet Engine” (American “hot jazz”, 1986). All these compositions are deservedly ranked among the indisputable achievements of Soviet instrumental jazz music. It’s serious jazz. In 1989 Orbelian recreated from memory Artemi Aivazyan’s “Armenian Rhapsody” (the score for which was lost) as a tribute to Ayvazyan and a dedication to the orchestra’s 50th anniversary. Since then it has been played during the band’s concerts. Also, the repertoire was enriched with “Nocturne”, a new composition by Arno Babajanyan, every performance of which still causes the pure rapture of the audience.
Among the variety of musical styles experimented by the composer, a special place is taken by his songwriting. During different years, various songs created by him – “One Hundred Hours of Happiness”, “Murmur of the Birches”, “Arevik” and “You’re Coming” – became laureates of the popular TV song contest “Song of the Year”. International prizes were awarded to “I love you, my Moscow” (Hungary) and “You’re Coming” (laureate of the festival of smash-hits of Czechoslovakia and DRG). A record titled “Murmur of the Birches” was released in Czechoslovakia with popular songs by Soviet composers, while the famous French record label, Charles Dumont released a record including the songs “My Yerevan”, “Yerevan and Spring in My Heart”. Orbelian wrote “Dancing World”, “To sing is to live”, “One Hundred Hours of Happiness”, “Murmur of the Birches”, “Thank You, Life”, “Love Doesn’t Age”, “No, You’re Not the One I Need”, “Remember” and others.
Another category for Orbelian’s compositions is his music created for movies, “The Road to Arena” and “2-Lionid-2”.
Konstantin Orbelian is a laureate of numerous All-union and international competitions. He was repeatedly invited as a member of jury at international jazz contests. In 1979 Konstantin Orbelian was awarded the title of People’s Artist of the USSR for his great contribution to the development of the Soviet musical culture. Orbelian is a member of the USSR Union of Composers (since 1956), a trustee of the USSR Union of Composers (since 1968), administrative secretary of the Armenian Union of Composers (since 1983), chairman of the Pop Music Council of the USSR GosConcert (1987), secretary of the Association for masters of pop art, vice-president of the administrative board of the All-Union Musical Society. Member of Artistic Council for Pop Music of the USSR Ministry of Culture.
Konstantin Orbelian was awarded The Order of Friendship of Peoples, The Order of Honor, the Bulgarian Order after Kirill and Mefodii and the Armenian Order of St. Mesrop Mashots. In 2006, Konstantin Orbelian was awarded the Golden Cross, the highest order of the Union of Armenians of Russia for the great contribution in the development of Armenian and Soviet Cultures.
In the beginning of the 90’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union working with the orchestra and creating music became very difficult. So did fighting against the difficult economic situation. People merely survived with almost no electricity and water supply. In 1992 Konstantin Orbelian moved to San Francisco, and currently lives and works in Los Angeles. He has recently created instrumental and vocal jazz compositions. Orbelian has also “missed” the big music, calling it “everyday recipe of mood”
During the recent years 8 new CDs have been released in Los Angeles with compositions for symphonic orchestra, as well as pop and jazz music.
Moscow, United International Biographical Centre, 2000.