An Audience with Vartan Melkonian

A presentation with illustrations by Vartan Melkonian on Maria Jacobsen who founded the Birds’ Nest Children’s Home

Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550 [first movement]
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

London Chamber Orchestra
Vartan Melkonian

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 1 July, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Vartan Melkonian appears to be the happiest man I have come across in a long time. Nothing unusual in that except his early childhood and beyond was traumatic to say the least. Born of Armenian refugee parents in Lebanon he was left without a mother at the age of 7 or 8 (he still does not know his birthday!) and was placed in a local orphanage.

The evening spent with Vartan Melkonian combined both an account of his early life and a display of his musicianship, conducting a concert in the second half. Perhaps he appears so happy because he realises his extreme good fortune in being put into the care of an extraordinary Danish lady, Maria Jacobsen, who left her comfortable home as a teenager, in the late-1890s, and made her way to a place in the then Ottoman Empire before founding an orphanage for exiled Armenian children, called the Birds’ Nest at Byblos in Lebanon.

Her fortitude, kindness and conviction make her a candidate for sainthood. Vartan Melkonian lived in this haven of peace, tranquillity and friendship until he was asked to leave in his pre-teens to make room for younger children. He decamped to Beirut and lived the life of an urchin for some time before embarking on entering into what is called a normal, civilised environment in Europe, eventually becoming a conductor and building on his innate musicianship. Now he runs the Melkonian Foundation, pledged to raise funds for the Birds’ Nest Home in Byblos. Despite ample opportunity for bitterness with early parental loss and extreme poverty in his formative years, Melkonian has embraced the art of forgiveness: hence his happy demeanour, I suppose.

His gift of perfect pitch has gained him access (through unexplained channels) into the wonderful world of music and his sunny personality shone through in a life-enhancing performance of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, a favourite of his saviour, Maria Jacobsen.

And what a work this is. With none of the hard-edged bluntness of its predecessor, the glorious Sixth heralded most of the features of musical Romanticism and in particular the work of Berlioz. In this performance the most pleasurable movement was the bucolic scherzo in which the keen and enthusiastic players of the London Chamber Orchestra displayed manifold musical skills and sympathies to great effect. It’s funny how music concentrates the mind, though. Melkonian adopted a suitably serious facial expression while conducting this masterpiece.

Altogether it was an uplifting evening in the presence of a man who possesses humour, humility and honour.

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