Meet the Musicians: Armen Ksajikian
Armen Ksajikian's life seems to be that of adventure and fables, with his cello carrying him forth like a trusty steed. His career consists not only of great traditional successes but also of many one-of-a-kind experiences. "I'm the only cellist who has played his own death scene," he can proudly boast. But we'll get to that in a moment. Armen was born in a country that no longer exists, the Soviet Republic of Georgia, in a town called Sukhumi (now considered the capital of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia) to Armenian parents.
During his formative years, his uncle, renowned cellist Sevan Pogosyan moved into their humble abode and would practise in the living room while a toddler Armen would play with his toys. "The way Armen's looking at me, he's going to be cellist," his uncle declared to Armen's mother. "Christina," Armen says to me, "I'm a 5 year old kid. There's nothing else happening in the room, of course i'm looking at him! It was like a pre-arranged marriage." Strict cello lessons in Russian ensued and he had to address his uncle as "Mister" Pogosyan, but fortunately only during tutelage. After training, they would go back to being family.
Coincidentally, years later, Uncle Sevan turned out to be the longest serving cellist in the Cal Phil, though that is not how Armen became involved with the orchestra. It was principal cellist, Dennis Karmazyn who recruited him from the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. In his youth, Armen dreamed of attending the Moscow Conservatory, but his family chose to leave the Soviet Union after his father, a dentist, was investigated by the KGB on false accusations. (Yet another story worthy of it's own novel.) First they immigrated to Italy, before coming to Los Angeles, where they "wandered the hard streets" of Hollywood looking for work. His mother, former Armenian dance company performer, and a licensed medical professional in the Soviet Union, took a minimum wage job at a convalescent hospital, keeping the family afloat. And a 19 year-old Armen, whose only English words were: "My name is Armen, can I audition?" hit the pavement, landing a spot in the American Youth Symphony, when conductor Mehli Mehta heard where he had studied in the Soviet Union.
From there, Mr. Ksajikian played in the pit of the Civic Light Orchestra for numerous Broadway musicals starring legendary Golden Age actors. A solo in La Cage Aux Folles led to studio contracts, and Armen has played on over 1,200 scores, 38 of which were John Williams', the classic ET being his first studio job. Armen Ksajikian and his antics (such as using a real hook while playing on the score of Hook) also show up on director Steven Spielberg's home videos, as Mr. Spielberg personally films all the scoring sessions on his own home camera. In the popular entertainment arena Mr. Ksajikian has worked with groups like The Eagles, Scorpions, Incubus, Earth Wind & Fire, The Academy Awards, Dancing with the Stars and Duke Ellington Orchestras. Armen has appeared as a soloist with the Nacional Orchestre du Brazil, Pacific Symphony, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where he has held the position of the Associate Principal since 2000.
While playing in the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Armen met his former wife publicity director Vanessa Butler. The two were married on the Hollywood Bowl stage, a rare honor they share with Percy Grainger and Ella Viola Ström. This very stage also led, quite unexpectedly, to Armen's major motion picture on-camera debut. One night, having been rightfully upset about a work situation, he furiously bowed his cello with a look of savagery. A casting director in the audience spotted him, and next thing he knew, he found himself on a plane to Florida to co-star in James Cameron's True Lies, opposite Jaimie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing the limousine driver of Tia Carrere. Post filming, Mr. Ksajikian returns to studio work, only to play on the score of the film, as he watched his character die on screen. Only in Hollywood.
Speaking of Hollywood, Armen is the cellist of the cult classic Armadillo String Quartet, known for their collaborations with Peter Schickele, premiering a quartet by "P.D.Q. Bach" (Schickele's comedic alias) at Carnegie Hall, as well as being the only ensemble to have performed the complete string quartets of Joseph Haydn in a 34-and-1/2-hour marathon! (He did dose off a couple times while bowing). Yet Armen is most proud of having performed with the Hiland Mountain Women's Prison String Orchestra, coaching the female inmates, as well as soloing with their ensemble.
Armen says he is "a sucker for playing in unusual places" such as when the Armadillo String Quartet played in the Grand Canyon during a white water rafting trip, or playing at a raptor center in Alaska, and of course at the Women's Correctional Facility in Alaska, so the Cal Phil's unique concert venues such as the Arboretum or Race Track interested him. "I like Vic's taste of talking to the audience and acknowledging the people around him. He shows the utmost respect," he says of the Maestro. "The orchestra repertoire doesn't go by labels. It's not about classical, or jazz, or baroque or pop, it's just about music." Armen Ksajikian, like the California Philharmonic, defies labels, and makes it all just about the music.