By Alin K. Gregorian
SEATTLE, Wash. — Conductor Tigran Arakelyan may be young, but you would not know it from talking to him.
Arakelyan’s love affair with music started through a difficult situation. Arakelyan said that during his childhood, he suffered from bad asthma. “It was pretty intense,” he said.
His parents took him to a homeopathic doctor, who suggested that to strengthen his lungs, he should take up a wind instrument. This being Armenia, he suggested duduk or zurna. Eventually, young Tigran picked the flute and he found himself totally enamored.
Not only did the use of the instrument help his asthma, but also the music itself became a balm for his ailment.
Born in Yerevan, Armenia, Arakelyan and his family moved to California when Tigran was 11 years old.
Music was on his mind from a young age, Arakelyan said. He said his parents have a family video of kids, in which someone asks each child what they want to be when they grow up. At age 10, Arakelyan’s answer was “musician.”
“It was the right time and also gave me something to do,” he said from his Seattle home.
Arakelyan currently is the music director of Bainbridge Island Youth Orchestras and Federal Way Youth Symphony Orchestra, both in Washington. He is also associate conductor of the Rainer Symphony.
Arakelyan has held various associate and assistant conducting positions with the California Philharmonic, Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, Rainier Symphony, Northridge Youth Philharmonic, University of Washington Symphony, and CSU Northridge Symphony.
Arakelyan praised his mother, Gohar, for her constant presence during his practices and said that she was able to give him feedback in such a way as to constantly take up his playing by degrees.
In addition to his parents, Arakelyan gives much credit to the Lark Musical Society, a Glendale-based organization that offers music lessons as well as performances of Armenian and non-Armenian music by Armenian performers throughout greater Los Angeles.
There, he said, he learned about various aspects of performance, including chamber music, musical history and much more.
“It is a great, great environment. They invite amazing and inspirational people” to give performances and talks too, Arakelyan added.
He credits Vatsche Barsoumian, the founder of Lark, with launching his career.
“Vatsche really inspired me. Watching him, I thought this is really sweet. He has some kind of passionate and great people skills. It is amazing to see him work with an orchestra,” Arakelyan said.
Arakelyan attended California State University Northridge and started work with the Youth Orchestra there. “There were a lot of great opportunities at the school,” he said.
More importantly for Arakelyan, he is also the uncle of Bahrig, who is the young conductor’s fiancée.
Thus he changed from flute to conducting.
By chance, Arakelyan met conductor David Rahbee, the senior artist in residence at the University of Washington School of Music in Seattle, three years ago. Rahbee is director of orchestral activities and teaches conducting. The chance meeting led to an email from Rahbee in April 2013, putting him in touch with Ludovic Morlot, the conductor of Seattle Symphony, who also happens to be the chair of orchestral conducting at the University of Washington. As a result of that subsequent contact, Arakelyan received a full scholarship to pursue his doctorate in conducting at the University of Washington.
Arakelyan has just finished his school work. Only a day or two before this interview was conducted in early June, he had formally submitted his doctoral dissertation in writing, which he had defended about a month ago.
While Arakelyan explained that he reveres traditions in classical music, he said he wants to forge a path in a new direction when it comes to music. When he arrived in Seattle, he founded an orchestra comprising 30 musicians with the intention of getting more practice conducting.
“It has been a great experience for me. I wanted to get some videos of me conducting,” he said.
However, while working with the orchestra, he hit upon the idea of preaching the gospel of classical music where it might not traditionally be heard. Thus, he explained, he led the orchestra when they performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Ode to Joy, at a bar in downtown Seattle. This audacious choice of venue merited a small write-up in the Seattle papers. The orchestra has also played a coffee shop on Capitol Hill in Seattle.
The reactions, he says, are almost always positive. “There have been so many reactions. A lot of people said things like this should happen more. I think people don’t have access to it and a lot of people, once they have experienced it, like it. I just think this is a great idea.”
The subject of Arakelyan’s dissertation is the orchestral music of Armenian composers. To backtrack, he explained that all classical works —including movements, instrumentation and publication information — are compiled in David Daniels’ Orchestral Music, a sort of Bible for classical music. Very few Armenian composers and their works are in the book, with the exception of the major ones such as Aram Khachaturian and Alan Hovhannes.
“I want to make the same version of the book on Armenian composers,” he said. Thus far, he has collected about 300 pieces from 30 composers. He also wants to make available the works online.
“There are so many great Armenian composers that are unknown here,” he said. “I love Armenian composers. They always put something in there that is Armenian.”
In addition, he has led several youth orchestras, including the Bainbridge Island Youth Orchestras and the Federal Way Youth Orchestra, both near Seattle.
“Those kids are super talented,” he said.
He took the Federal Way players to Korea for a tour of Seoul and Bussan. “There was a tremendous turnout. Thousands of people came. It was very, very encouraging.”
A strong advocate of new music, he has performed regional and world premieres by Iosif Andriasov, Stepan Rostomyan, Jeff Bowen, Jon Brenner, Arshak Andriasov, Felipe Rossi, and Eleanor Aversa among others. Arakelyan conducted the Pacific Northwest premiere of Paul Hindemith Kammermuzik Nr. 1.
He is a recipient of numerous awards including: Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Performing Arts Fellowship (2013, 2014, 2015), Nellie Cornish, Welland Jordan, Edward Hosharian Award, Cornish College of the Arts Performance Grant, and the Armenian Allied Arts Competition (1st place).
Upcoming performances include Music Works Orchestra Jam Camp June 27-July 1, and Chamber Music Club Summer String Orchestra (University of Washington) on Thursday, July 21, at Brechemin Auditorium, the University of Washington.
For more information on this rising star, visit his website at http://www.tigranarakelyan.com/