Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Music Director Aram Demirjian Lands Where He Belongs


By Wayne Bledsoe 

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (USA Today Network) — Probably at no time in his life before he applied for the job did Aram Demirjian ever imagine himself as artistic director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

“I’ve never wound up being where I thought I would be, but I wound up being where I was supposed to be,” says Demirjian over coffee at Awaken Coffee on Jackson Avenue.

In his first year with the KSO, he’s led his musicians through both beloved favorites and unfamiliar pieces. And in his youthfulness (Demirjian just entered his 30s), Demirjian shows no lack of maturity, but a fresh enthusiasm that is infectious.

Aram Demirjian grew up in a family of non-professional musicians

Born in Boston, Mass., and raised in nearby Arlington and Lexington, Demirjian grew up loving American history.

“Lexington is where the birthplace of America, where the Revolutionary War started,” he says. “It’s where I became fascinated with history. I studied it in high school. I was even a tour guide for my summer job, wearing the three-corner hat and everything. I was obsessed with it.”

Demirjian grew up in a family of non-professional musicians. His father plays violin. His mother plays piano. His older sister played both of those instruments, but excelled as a vocalist, before pursuing a career as a journalist. She now works at the Washington Post.

Aram played cello and sang in choir and other vocal groups, both in his high school and the New England Conservatory Preparatory School.

“Music was always the No. 1 extracurricular, the No. 1 passion,” he says. “But I was always raised with the ethos of make your money elsewhere and spend it on music. I never, at any point in grade school, would’ve considered that I would be doing what I’m doing now. Although you talk to my friends and they’ll say they all saw it coming.”

He credits the public school system for fostering a love of music and having programs to encourage young artists.

“For a music nerd, I was very lucky that I went to schools where it was cool to be a musician and I made a lot of great friends, many of whom are still my best friends today,” he says.

He says the first piece of music that had a deep effect on him was Gabriel Faure’s cello piece “Elegy.” He heard one of his cello teacher’s older students play it at a recital and knew he had to play it himself.

“I remember the first time I played it, having a real heightened emotional connection to the music,” he says. “That was the first one. There were many more beyond that.”

Another epiphany occurred when he was in a youth orchestra playing Dvorak’s New World Symphony, according to Demirjian.

“I was 14 years old,” he says. “The piece just kind of what overwhelmed me at that moment. Just the phenomenon of a whole symphony orchestra. You’ve got 100 people in a room and they’re all doing something individual and yet it’s in service of a greater harmony. I became fascinated by how that all worked and I became even more fascinated by what everybody else was doing than I was in what I was doing in my cello part and I really wanted to be as connected to every aspect of it as possible.”

Conducting appeared to be the route to what he wanted. He took some lessons with a conductor when he was 15 or 16 and Demirjian’s orchestra teacher allowed him to conduct his high school orchestra during Demirjian’s senior year.

Demierjian followed by enrolling in Harvard.

“I was studying government and politics and I was very much on the path of working in Washington, DC, and getting a law degree and all that,” he says.

During his junior year, Demirjian realized that it was music, not government studies that was truly his passion.

“I loved the government work, but at a certain point it began to feel like it took effort. Music takes effort, but at the same time there’s a sense of effortlessness to it. And I’m always amazed at how much deeper you can go in music and I never tire of going deeper and deeper and deeper into music. I am never fatigued by it or wearied by it.”

Demirjian won the position of orchestra director for Harvard’s Bach Society Orchestra, which has been an institution at the university for 160 years. The orchestra’s past directors include Alan Gilbert, current musical director of the New York Philharmonic; the composer John Adams; and Hugh Wolff, who would later mentor Demirjian.

“To be 21 years old and to have an orchestra that did four or five concerts a year and you can do programming and practice marketing and do auditions and run a rehearsal cycle and everything like that, that was invaluable experience that I really did not appreciate the significance of that experience of that until now when I’m back in a musical director position,” says Demirjian. “And something about being on that podium felt right and it felt like, ‘You know, I could do this!’”

Demirjian graduated with a music degree and then took a year off to prepare to audition for graduate school.

“I decided to challenge myself to put myself in as many new situations as I possibly could. I was always better being around people I was close to. Then I decided to just be around new people and have new experiences and be fearless about it, which turned out be, even though it was initially terrifying, very positive. I met a lot of new people.”

One of those new people was particularly important. During that year off an associate asked if Demirjian would be interested in filling in for an assistant conductor for the Long Island Youth Orchestra for a tour of Scandinavia. Demirjian says he would have normally said, “No,” but he was still challenging himself to new experiences:

“I decided, ‘Sure. Why not.’ It turns out one of the chaperones on that tour, I’m now married to. That’s how I met my wife. I will say, It was far from the most musically fulfilling experience I’ve ever had, but I can’t even imagine what my life would’ve looked like without that trip.”

Demirjian was accepted into the graduate program at New England Conservatory, where he studied with Hugh Wolff, the teacher he had hoped to study with. It turned out to be the right fit.

“When you go to conducting school, everything else stops,” says Demirjian. “It’s boot camp. It’s like the first two years of med school. It’s like the first two years of law school. It’s that intense. You either find yourself doing more work than you thought you could every possibly do or you don’t. And that determines whether you succeed and get through it.”

Demirjian worked for three summers at the Aspen Music Festival, which led to an invitation to audition for the assistant conductor position in the Kansas City Symphony. He landed the job and, in his four years there, rose to associate conductor.

“Again, I wound up exactly where I needed to be,” says Demirjan. “It’s a great organization and it was just the right time. They were opening a new concert hall and taking a step up to a new level of playing and new level of national distinction.”

After four years, Demirjian felt that it was time to try for a music director position. Music director Lucas Richman had just announced that he would be leaving the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and that was the first job Demirjian applied for.

“I applied thinking, ‘OK, this is a little bit too big and too advanced for me, but I need to practice applying for these positions if I’m ever gonna get one.’ Fast forward to a year and a half later, here I am.”

Maybe it was Demirjian’s attitude about a conductor’s attitude with the orchestra that was a deciding factor.

“You have to have conviction,” he says. “That’s not the same thing as confidence. That’s not the same thing as arrogance. That’s not the same thing as cockiness. It’s conviction that you belong up there given all the realities of the situation, understanding what you have to offer … and listening to the orchestra, seeing what they have to offer, and seeing how you can work together.

Demirjian is a very active conductor. He moves a lot with the music.

“The best moments when I’m on the podium is when it feels like the music is playing me and everyone is kind of one brain,” he says. “Those are the times it’s easiest to relax and the smallest gestures can have the most powerful of impacts.”

Demirjian, though, wants to change some attitudes about orchestra concerts. He wants to keep old familiar favorites in the KSO’s programs, but he also wants to bring new audiences in and showcase new works.

“I want to attract audiences who are artistically curious, who have not necessarily tried out classical music or who are curious about classical music, but have not felt comfortable or welcome or in the right place at the symphony,” he says. “Sometimes that means younger people, sometimes that means middle-aged people. Sometimes that means people in their 60s or 70s who have never been to an orchestra concert.”

He wants loyal KSO fans to hear new unfamiliar sounds and familiar sounds in fresh ways.

“It comes down to two words for me: Defy expectations.”