Forgotten Composer Gets U.S. Debut in Charlottesville

Oct 24, 2017

Talent is important to the success of an artist, but that’s not the only factor. Timing and geography are also key, and this next story involves a composer who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Now, nearly 35 years after his death, he’s finally getting the recognition he hoped for here in Virginia.  Sandy Hausman has his surprising story.

Monika Chamasyan will perform a long lost concerto with the Crozet Community Orchestra November 11 and 12.
Credit Crozet Community Orchestra

You’re listening to the work of Arno Babajanian, a brilliant composer from Armenia – compared by his fans to some of the great composers of Europe. Under Soviet control in the late 20th century, he wrote film scores and popular songs for Russian crooners.  

“Many composers, during the Soviet times, were hired to write music for movies and cartoons," says Monika Chamasyan -- a concert violinist from Virginia who made her debut at Carnegie Hall in 2009. " Even composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev were doing that.”

Chamasyan first heard this concerto in Armenia at a memorial service for Babajanian in 1983.

“During the 60’s and 70’s my teacher, Willi Mokatzian, was a respected soloist and a close friend to Babajanian," she recalls. "This concerto was dedicated to him.”

They were so close that Chamasyan’s teacher sat by the composer ‘s bedside as he lay dying at the age of 62.

“He visited him in hospital, and he was telling me how sad Babajanian was.  He was telling him that his work is not done, he’s too young to die -- to leave this earth without composing enough.”

Years later, after she had moved to America, Chamasyan met Phillip Clark – conductor of the Crozet Community Orchestra, .and told him about the concerto.

 “He said, ‘Let’s do it!”

But doing it proved more complicated than either one expected.  It took months to find the score – a guide to what every member of the orchestra would play at once.  That was of no use to the individual players.

“So you have to present a part specifically for a first violin that they can put on the stand," Clark explains. "They don’t see any of the other music. They just hear it.”

And Chamasyan couldn’t find those individual scores.

“She said they’d got lost in the Soviet breakup," he says. "Apparently lots of people went into the music library and just took what they wanted.  There’s was no structure -- no policing.”

Clark decided to re-create those parts one by one.

“From a 230-240 page score, that’s a lot of copying, and it did take me three years to do it,” he says.  

And that was with help from a computer program called Finale.

“Which is good, because I can’t read my own writing anyway," Clark jokes. "I think about Mozart and Beethoven.  They must have spent half their lives correcting proofs and stuff like that.”

But he has no complaints.

“From my point of view it was so much fun, because I got to know this wonderful piece.”

And Monika Chamasyan is equally excited – preparing to solo with the orchestra on what is likely the North American debut of Babajanian’s concerto.

“I feel blessed that I’m going to be playing this long lost concerto that was dedicated to my teacher, and I hope that I can give Babajanian some of the recognition that he deserves.”

The orchestra will perform November 11th at Aldersgate Church in Charlottesville – a day chosen pretty much at random.  It turned out to be the day the composer died.  The following day, November 12th,  the Community Orchestra will play at the Baptist Church in Crozet.  Admission is free.  In Charlottesville, I’m Sandy Hausman.