Constantine Orbelian is an American pianist who since the 1990s has increasingly focused on conducting as well. In fact, he has appeared on recordings more often as a conductor than as a pianist and has been closely identified with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble to which he was appointed music director in 1991. Orbelian was born in San Francisco in 1956 to immigrant parents, his father an Armenian and his mother a Ukrainian, both refugees who were displaced during World War II. By the 1960s, the Orbelian family was prospering, owing to the father's crafty real estate investments and other business ventures. Early on, young Constantine was exposed not only to music, but to the company of some of the finest Russian musicians of the time, who were regular visitors to the household, including Rostropovich, Vishnievskaya, Richter, Gilels, and Ashkenazy. Orbelian gave his first public performance at age five and by 11, when he debuted with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, he had reached near-virtuoso status. His first important teacher was Alexander Lieberman. As a teenager, he earned a scholarship in Armenia; its proximity to Moscow allowed for regular weekend trips for lessons with Anaida Sumbatian, a teacher recommended by Ashkenazy. Orbelian returned to the U.S. for private studies with Nina Svetlanova and with Nadia Reisenberg at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he graduated from in 1980. By this time, Orbelian had already established a career as a concert pianist.
His first recording came with the 1987 Chandos release of the Khachaturian piano concerto, with Neeme Järvi leading the Scottish National Orchestra. By 1990, Orbelian had appeared with a varied and impressive list of orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. He had also done some conducting by then, but only infrequently, and on the occasions when he did he usually led the ensemble from the keyboard.
Favorably impressed by his pianistic and conducting skills, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra management appointed Orbelian music director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1991, following the death of conductor Andre Korsakov. Orbelian was the the first American ever to hold such a position in Russia. In 1992, Orbelian and his wife, violinist Maria Safariants, founded the Palaces of St. Petersburg Festival. Safariants, who lives in St. Petersburg with the couple's son, is the director of the event, which is held every June. In 1998, Orbelian took the M.C.O. on a highly successful concert tour of the United States, covering 50 cities. They appeared three times at Carnegie Hall between 1998-1999. Most of Orbelian's recordings have been for the Delos label, but he has also recorded for Chandos and Philips. Some of his other efforts include the 1999 release of works by Piazzolla, on which he led the M.C.O., and a disc of Tchaikovsky works entitled Queen of Spades -- Great Scenes, on which he conducts the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. Both CDs appear on the Delos label. In 2000, Orbelian was named permanent guest conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic, and in 2004, became the first non-Russian citizen to be given the title "Honored Artist of Russia," with the award bestowed by President Putin.