Armen Ghazaryan was destined to be a musician. Before he was even born, Armen’s father foretold that his son would become the musician he himself never had the chance to be while growing up in the Soviet Union during the 1950s, a time and place where composers often hid their sheet music under their mattresses for fear of being banished to a Siberian prison if their scores were deemed too subversive. That Armen would end up possessing the passion and talent to become a musician was a stroke of serendipity.
The violin became Armen’s vehicle to the United States, landing him, of all places, on Nantucket, an island that couldn’t be more different than his native Armenia. Despite his uncanny ability to predict his future, Armen’s father never could have imagined that one day his son would perform for one of the most important men in his lifetime—-and on Nantucket no less.
his September, Armen is slated to give the most significant performance of his career when he plays for former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev at the Nantucket Project. “I saw Mr. Gorbachev for the first time at the age of seven, being a little kid in Moscow with my father,” he says. “I remember his presidential limo was coming out of Kremlin, and dad grabbed me to go see him…Gorbachev brought a lot of
hope with him, a lot of good energy.”
This hope was felt especially in the arts, where for decades Soviet painters, writers and musicians lived in fear. Many bold composers used their music as an outlet for protest, embedding dissent into their scores at great personal risk. Writers were especially endangered, as was seen when Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was locked up in a Siberian prison for what was deemed subversive literature.
“Then with Gorbachev it changed,” Armen says. “You didn’t have to worry that your music was too modern, too avant-garde. If that’s the way you thought, then that’s the way you should play it.” Indeed, the arts flourished under Gorbachev. “What he wanted to do was change the way of thinking that ruled for fifty years,” Armen says raising a clenched fist. “It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do, but he did it.”
With the Iron Curtain down, Armen picked up the violin at the age of six, and played his way up the ranks of Eastern Europe’s music schools and conservatories, often under the tutelage of renowned composers. At the age of twenty-two, a foreign exchange program delivered Armen to Nantucket, and seven years later, on the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, he was sworn in as an American citizen at the JFK Library. He has lived on Nantucket ever since, performing and teaching violin.
“The instrument is only a little over one pound, a piece of wood,” Armen says today in a lingering Armenian accent. “If you think about it, it’s absurd how many things we can do with that little piece of wood.” Armen is a slight man, and he talks with the thoughtful rhythm of a bow being drawn back and forth over taut strings, his eyes scanning the room as he mentally translates his words. “I don’t believe that the violin has been fully discovered yet,” he says. “I think there’s a few things still to be done.”
Accompanied by pianist Robert Berman, Armen will perform Edvard Mirzoyan’s “Introduction and Perpetual Motion” at the Nantucket Project for Gorbachev, a piece of music that holds significance for both the performer and the former Russian president. “Obviously we couldn’t pick something random, like a Beethoven piece, no matter how much I love Beethoven,” Armen says of the chosen score. Edvard Mirzoyan was a top composer in the Soviet Union during Gorbachev’s time, and he knew the Russian president personally. “He was a composer who raised his voice [during] a very difficult period, not only in Soviet history, but in human history,” Armen says. “He was someone that described his time very well.”
At the age of sixteen, Armen performed the piece in front of Mirzoyan himself, learning firsthand the message that the composer intended with each note. Armen’s performance of “Introduction and Perpetual Motion” comes just months after Mizoryan passed away at the age of ninety-two. “This will be the first time I’ve played the piece since his death,” he says.
So while Nantucket may be worlds away from Mikhail Gorbachev’s motherland Russia, thanks to Armen he can feel somewhat at home, hearing the music he made possible through his leadership. As for Armen Ghazaryan, this will surely be a performance of a lifetime, and in many ways, it’s a new interpretation of Nantucket sound.