Aram Gharabekian, 58; conductor promoted works by Armenian composers
At 28, Aram Gharabekian and a group of freelance musicians formed the SinfoNova Chamber Orchestra, which he hoped would find a niche in Boston’s crowded music scene.
“My concern was not only to form an orchestra, but to create an atmosphere, a musical and an artistic atmosphere, within which everyone can work, enjoying what they’re doing,” he told the Globe in June 1983, a few weeks before SinfoNova’s debut performance at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. “I don’t want people there just because it’s an obligation, or just because they’re getting paid.”
After leading SinfoNova for several years, he went on to become artistic director and principal conductor of the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia. He also served as a guest conductor around the world, often presenting programs that featured works by Armenian composers whose careers he hoped to boost.
“Aram was a very serious musician who took what he did very seriously,” said Dennis Alves, director of artistic planning for the Boston Pops, who added that “he was great to work with. He gave people space to play, to do their thing. And he appreciated good musicianship, and he was a fine musician.”
Mr. Gharabekian died Jan. 10 at his home in Los Angeles of a pulmonary embolism. He was 58.
During his years in Boston, Mr. Gharabekian often worked with leaders in the region’s Armenian community to highlight Armenia’s music and culture.
In a statement issued shortly after Mr. Gharabekian’s death, Armenia’s prime minister, Hovik Abrahamyan, said he had learned “with deep pain about the untimely death of the famous conductor, Merited Artist of the Republic of Armenia Aram Gharabekian. I express my deep condolence to the family, close relatives, friends, and colleagues of the acclaimed artist.”
When a massive earthquake ravaged northern Armenia in 1988, Mr. Gharabekian worked with others in Boston to put together a benefit concert, “Ode to Life,” in two days. The response from the city’s musicians, he told the Globe at the time, “is very touching for me not only as an Armenian but as a musician.”
While the hallmark of his career was promoting Armenian composers, he also liked to introduce audiences to pieces that were rarely performed.
“He was very keen on understanding when and how and where the original score was written and was adamant about trying to deliver what the composer intended,” said Vahe Aghabegians of Los Angeles, a longtime friend.
Born in Tehran to Armenian parents, Mr. Gharabekian began studying piano, theory, and composition as a teenager and recalled that the city had a vibrant music scene, which included the Tehran Symphony Orchestra.
He moved to the United States at 17 and studied first at Boston Conservatory and New England Conservatory, then at Tanglewood with the French composer Betsy Jolas, and in Europe, where he learned conducting from Franco Ferrara of Italy and Romanian-born Sergiu Celibidache.
“Celibidache is an amazing man and an amazing teacher,” Mr. Gharabekian told the Globe in 1983.
He added that watching Celibidache in rehearsal with an orchestra “is like two full years of work in a conservatory. It isn’t very often that you can learn so much from the way a conductor rehearses.”
Under Mr. Gharabekian the SinfoNova chamber orchestra enjoyed considerable success, appearing in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and Carnegie Hall in New York City. Five years after its launch, however, SinfoNova came close to shutting down for financial reasons. SinfoNova ultimately survived through a combination of corporate sponsorship and grants.
“Touring and recording projects are going to be very important to us at this stage of our development,” Mr. Gharabekian told the Globe in 1989. “Those will help us become a viable organization which brings excitement both for the orchestra and for the audience.”
In a review of a SinfoNova concert performed at Jordan Hall in February 1989, Globe critic Richard Dyer wrote: “Aram Gharabekian knows how to inspire an orchestra to give him what he wants.”
The audience, Dyer wrote, was filled with Armenian-Americans and “it was deeply moving to share the experience of community expressed in the music and felt by an audience across the world.”
A few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gharabekian was invited to lead the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia, which he guided for 13 years through numerous works, including about 40 compositions he commissioned.
Tours brought the orchestra through small Armenian villages, and Mr. Gharabekian often was invited to guest conduct for orchestras such as the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra in Croatia.
Wherever he went, friends said, his goal was to draw the best possible performances out of the musicians. While known to be demanding, he discussed every detail with musicians and made it clear he was passionate about the music.
“He strived for excellence and he always wanted to have extra rehearsals,” said Ara Arakelian, a longtime friend.
Arakelian said Mr. Gharabekian had a sense of adventure and “people loved that charisma. I don’t know what to call it besides charisma.”
A service was held in Armenia for Mr. Gharabekian, who leaves his mother, Jenia, and his sister, Christine Avakian, both of Armenia.
Public Radio of Armenia reported that the country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, attended Mr. Gharabekian’s funeral at the Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall in Armenia. A concert in the United States to honor the memory of Mr. Gharabekian will be announced.
Two years ago, Mr. Gharabekian moved to Los Angeles, and when the space shuttle Endeavour arrived in that city for a parade in 2012, he organized a musical performance to welcome the spacecraft to its new home at the California Science Center.
“I think every time he gave a performance, he left a piece of himself with that performance,” said Aghabegians, Mr. Gharabekian’s longtime friend in Los Angeles.
“He was literally given to the performance,” he added. “You could see that he would become really part and parcel of the music.”