To Russia With Love

Constantine Orbelian conducts the Moscow Chamber Orchestra
The Moscow Chamber Orchestra is one of the crown jewels of Russia. Its conductor, Constantine Orbelian, says its music reflects the traumatic history of the Russian people.

"It's a special sound we get out of those stringed instruments. There's something quite poignant about what they produce, this touching type of sound. It's gorgeous," Orbelian tells CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Eugenia Zukerman.

Orbelian's reserved conducting style, his stolid demeanor, even his beard - all seem to embody Russia. But this very Russian man was born in California.

Constantine Orbelian was born in San Francisco. He is an American.

How he came to be appointed music director of the prestigious Moscow Chamber Orchestra is a story that begins with his grandfather: a man the Soviet Union once branded "an enemy of the people."

His grandparents were members of the Communist Party, and revolutionaries. Agaparon Orbelian was swept up in the Russian Revolution, and prospered as a Communist official in an unlikely place.

"My grandfather," says Constantine Orbelian, "was head of the secret political division of the KGB in the city of Baku, which is on the Caspian Sea. My grandmother was also working on a very important post at the ministry of oil."

The young revolutionaries would have two sons: One of them was Harry, who was Constantine's father. Life was good for the Orbelian family, until Joseph Stalin came along.

As Stalin began to annihilate Communist party members in the mid-1930s, Orbelian's grandfather was arrested. He was killed in 1938. That same year, his grandmother was arrested; she spent eight years in a labor camp for women who were wives of enemies of the people.

When Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Constantine Orbelian's father was an outcast. A new chapter in the life of his family was about to begin.

He was drafted into the Russian army to fight for his country and was captured by the Germans in 1941. He spent four years in a concentration camp.

After the war, Orbelian's father met a young Ukrainian doctor in an American-run refugee camp in Germany. Vera had been taken from her home by the Nazis and forced to work in camps for war prisoners.

Today in Harry and Vera Orbelian's house in California, there is a Russian feel. But their lives here are an American success story. Harry Orbelian started as a janitor at a San Francisco department store. After 30 years, he would retire as a senior executive, and a wealthy man from real estate investments.

Both of them suffered a great deal, and they went though difficult times in Russia. But they still love Russia.

"Of course I love Russia," says Harry Orbelian. "I hate Stalin system. I hate the persecutions, that millions of people were killed before the war, during the war."

Adds his wife: "I know I don't like the government, and I couldn't come back after the war finished. But I still like my home."
Constantine Orbelian shares these feelings: "I was never given an impression that the Soviet Union was evil or that the Russian people were evil. They were always quite loved. I developed a great love for the Russian people and for Russian culture."

Constantine Orbelian grew up with Russian culture and the piano. He gave his first concert when he was 5, and he later studied at Juilliard School in New York. He became an accomplished concert pianist, touring in the United States and abroad.

In 1990, he was asked to play with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. When its conductor died a year later, the members voted to ask him to be their new leader. The Russian government approved, and Orbelian took the job, which he can hold for a lifetime.

"Russia was a musical mecca," he recalls, "and for me to be invited to come and head this wonderful orchestra was, I thought, a great coup for American musicians. And I had to do it - not only for myself but for our flag."

Orbelian arrived in Moscow as the old Soviet Union was breaking up. The years since have been marked by political and economic uncertainty. But the chaos hardly fazes him.

"I find that on a cultural level, the more strife, the more problems there are, the more people reach out to culture for their souls, to come into some kind of Nirvana in a concert hall, and getting away from the turmoil and problems of the outside world," he says.

Orbelian is not only his orchestra's musical director. He also symbolizes its financial future. He has expanded the orchestra's concert tours. In the fall, it toured the United States. His own family lives in St. Petersburg. He and his wife, Russian violinist Maria Safarianz, have a young son.

The conductor's drive and optimism are characteristics, he says, he learned from his father and mother.

"I've always been very proud of my parents and how they've been able to prosper in a country that is not their home country," he says.

Last summer, Vera Orbelian watched her son conduct in St. Petersburg. He says his journey in Russia is eased by the lessons his parents taught him as they made their way in a new land.

Says the conductor: "It's one of those wonderful situations (where) you have that impetus of success. You have to be successful. There's no way out. There's nobody to look for for help. It's all in my hands."