Vartan Melkonian – the person who came from nowhere

Written by: Colin Anderson

Vartan Melkonian has a remarkable story to tell – a musically talented orphan caught up in war comes to England, sings in clubs, directs TV commercials and appears on New Faces. A charming and dedicated family man, Vartan has formed a Foundation that acknowledges his roots by supporting underprivileged children. He is also a composer and, on the 15th in the Royal Festival Hall, conducts a charity concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Mozart’s Symphony No.40 included. It will be fascinating to hear Vartan’s view of these pieces – for he is entirely self-taught and approaches his profession through musical instinct: “I treat music for its own sake.”

Vartan’s background is Armenian. His grandparents perished in a massacre a century ago – “my parents as children were rescued and brought to the Middle East by the French; Lebanon was a French colony. They grew up in a refugee camp where I was born, next to the slaughterhouse of Beirut. I don’t have any records of my birth. My mother passed away when I was three or four and my father could not cope with my siblings. We were sent to the Birds’ Nest orphanage. I was there till I was eight because boys had to go to the army compound to make room for new children. I chose not to work for the Lebanese army and took a cattle-train to Beirut. That’s where I started my life.”

At the orphanage, Vartan had been “chosen to be a member of the choir. I had a severe speech impediment but when I sang there was no problem. My musical skills must have been in-born – the gift of music.” Vartan describes his upbringing as “primitive, but the orphanage children were privileged in comparison to the village peasants; on Sundays we wore sandals!” It was when searching the wavelengths of a radio that Vartan “heard something which struck me so wonderfully that I memorised it for years until I heard it again on BBC2. I rang a friend: ’what is that music?’ It was Beethoven’s Ninth! I used to fantasise about it and make new harmonies; this classic symphonic work was embedded in my thoughts.”

Vartan has been in England thirty years since escaping “the civil unrest in Lebanon, no infrastructure left. Me being Armenian, therefore not Arab, Christian not Muslim, it was natural to come to the West. England is when I was first-born intellectually – to understand the mechanics of music.” Vartan plays several instruments and before arriving in the West he achieved fame by forming popular-music groups, himself singing – “I used to impersonate Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones!” Established in London’s night-clubs, Vartan’s classical music ambitions – “my passionate hobby” – required “tough, long dedication.” Vartan has composed Impressions of Oman, and as further support for his Foundation, “to raise funds for orphanages around the world,” a CD of this colourful and vibrant music will be sold at the concert for £9.99. I greatly enjoyed this optimistic and deftly written choral and orchestral work that “portrays the collage of the West and East meeting in symphonic form.”

Vartan, the child on the streets in the “urine-saturated alleyways” who remembers “standing on a box conducting seagulls,” also survived the notoriously difficult Northern Clubs – “I was suddenly in Skegness, an agent got me one night. I was straight in, people with pints and playing dominoes, and I begun singing.” When he first conducted, in 1985 with the Royal Philharmonic, “no one knew me. However humble I was I still demanded something, which benefited me. I didn’t want to show the band that I was in great agony. When you learn and it becomes second nature, it’s the most glorious experience.”

Vartan is devoting even more time to the Foundation with several concerts a year “for children in need regardless of sect and culture.” The Royal Festival Hall programme this Tuesday is “for all the family to enjoy and celebrate my aspirations for children who need love and care.” Vartan describes himself as the “person who came from nowhere and never gave up. That’s important – with the support of others you can achieve something which is inherently in you.”

  • Philharmonia Orchestra/Vartan Melkonian – Favourite Classics, 15 April in the Royal Festival Hall
  • Melkonian Foundation
  • The above article published in “What’s On in London” published on 9 April 2003 and reproduced here with permission

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