BY SONA HAMALIAN
He possessed an extraordinary gift for imagery. Sitting across the table in a sidewalk café, his eyes twinkling with boyish excitement, he eased himself into his beloved raconteur mode, bringing people, places, sometimes entire cities, into dazzling, palpable focus.
He could do this, and do it breezily, because curiosity remained the heart of his prodigious love of life. And because, ultimately, the things that animated him and his relationship with his environment alike were all but indistinguishable from his creative impulse. To him, to be alive meant to be creative.
With a twist. Always the twist. In the world of Aram Gharabekian, the creative did not pertain merely to coming up with a cute or intriguing approach to performing a venerated symphony or concerto, but rather exploring the limits of the work, taking it to a novel footing of musical, emotional, and intellectual significance, shedding fresh light on what it is exactly that makes music arguably the most humanizing of the arts, and often infusing a winking measure of humor into the enterprise.
Aram’s knack for gleeful inventiveness burst onto the scene as soon as he had the chance to raise his first baton, as founder and principal conductor of the Sinfonova Chamber Orchestra, in Boston. His work with Sinfonova was praised by critics and audiences not just for its powerful artistry, but, characteristically, adventurousness. Nothing could be more flattering to Aram than recognition for his risk-laden forays into musical terra incognita.
Those forays continued with his engagements as guest conductor for a string of world orchestras, and, most notably, as artistic director and principal conductor of the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia (NCOA). In the course of his tenure with the NCOA, from 1997 to 2010, Gharabekian helped make post-independence Armenia a glittering presence on the global cultural stage, performing, incidentally, as an ideal artistic ambassador for his homeland, given his charm, extensive knowledge of Armenian music, and infectious penchant for collaborative projects.
Indeed, Aram spoke the words “collaboration” and “synergy” as not just abstractions or flights of fancy, but synonyms for tangible work. In 2009, they would come to define one of his most ambitious initiatives, the launch of Open Music Fest.
With the establishment of this international music festival, Aram was giving Armenia something it had never seen, at least in terms of scale and diversity. For almost an entire month in the summer of 2009, Open Music Fest was heard from the stage of an 800-seat open-air theater in Yerevan, offering some 30 concerts and featuring artists from every corner of the world.
Open Music Fest was an exuberant, no-holds-barred celebration of a slew of musical genres and styles, once again, however, delivered with a twist. Thus Aram was not in the least interested in simply fusing genres or styles together. Perhaps this is why he hated the term “world music.” Rather, he insisted on intelligent, structurally and esthetically sound collaborations between musical vocabularies. Audiences and critics took note, giving Aram every reason to go right ahead and plan the next annual Open Music Fest.
The reasons that the second installment of the festival was to never see the light of day can fill volumes. At this moment, however, I think it would be enough to mention that Aram was left with no choice but to resign his post at his beloved NCOA, which he had developed into a magnificent, world-class orchestra, and eventually to leave Armenia itself, like countless others before him who were effectively driven out of their homeland.
Yet afterwards, when he moved to Los Angeles, Aram scarcely seemed to have any appetite for dwelling in the past. On the contrary, he was already planning the next big thing. In the whirlwind of brainstorming sessions and meetings that followed, all fueled by his irrepressible enthusiasm, his next initiative was born in the form of the Open Music Society Foundation (OMSF). This was an ambitious, visionary project, seeking to take Open Music Fest global, instituting learning programs for talented kids, facilitating international musical exchanges and collaboration, and commissioning new compositions. As with the launch of Open Music Fest in Armenia, I was delighted to provide fundraising and other assistance to get the OMSF off the ground, along with so many volunteers and community supporters.
On January 10, 2014, when word of Aram’s passing hit my computer screen, the absurdity of the news was unsettling. The feeling was followed by disbelief, denial, and, finally, a crushing sorrow, accompanied by a sense of utter loneliness.
I got to know Aram in 2001, when, as development director with the Armenian Prelacy of New York, I helped organize a concert which he conducted at Carnegie Hall. The sold-out concert, which took place only days after 9/11, was immensely uplifting, with Aram’s performance alternating with breathtaking skill between soaring passion and meditative subtlety.
In the years since, as Aram became a dear friend and confidant, I never ceased to be amazed by the fact that his talent and creative spirit were tempered by an absolute lack of pretense. He was down-to-earth, amiable, even shy — so refreshingly uncharacteristic of an artist of his stature.
Such traits made for not only a wonderful friend, but someone who took genuine pleasure in being and working among the poor and the marginalized. Back in Armenia, as head of the NCOA, Aram organized numerous free concerts for what euphemistically are called “underserved” communities, and never tired of devising educational programs for kids from poor families.
On January 10 of this year, just as I desperately grappled with Aram’s loss, I was also painfully aware of the work which his death left unfinished, of all those concerts and cultural programs he held in store, across the horizon of his boundless and fearless imagination. On March 19, Aram was scheduled to conduct an unprecedented concert at Michigan State University, as part of the annual Cello Plus festival, founded and organized by Suren Bagratuni. Following Aram’s death, it was decided to dedicate the concert to his memory.
The last time I spoke with Aram, he said he couldn’t wait to perform at the Cello Plus concert. His joy was due in large part to the fact that the event was to be a collaboration between him, Bagratuni, and composer Vache Sharafyan. The synergy was the thing. Therein lay the inspiration, as much as the anticipation of making great music itself.
There are people who die. Then there are those who become immortal when they are taken away from us.
Farewell, Aram. Farewell. You will forever live in the music of our lives.