A sure-fire way to make Aram Demirjian happy? Offer him some of his aunt’s yalanchi, the famed Armenian vegetarian stuffed grape leaves.
But there’s more than one way to Demirjian’s heart by way of his stomach.
“I’m a big taco fan,” he says. “I don’t think I have too sophisticated palette, but I know what I like.”
Demirjian, the music director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, is the fourth of six candidates to audition for the role of music director/conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic. He’s in town this week meeting board members, musicians, the media and audience members, all leading up to a Sunday concert with him on the podium.
For our get-to-know-the-candidate lunch, we once again wanted something authentic, not swanky, so we picked El Premio Mayor Taqueria for premium Fresno tacos.
Our little lunch group with Demirjian on Wednesday included me, features editor Kathy Mahan, orchestra executive director Stephen Wilson and a special guest: Tim Fletcher, a Fresno Pacific University music graduate (and a featured player, by the way, in the current Good Company Players production of “The Will Rogers Follies” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater). Our discussion ranged from extolling the beauty of Bach to Demirjian’s admission that he is, alas, a roller-coaster wimp.
You can check out part of our discussion on the following Facebook Live video:
Some highlights from our discussion:
Innovative thinking: When he was associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, Demirjian started a series called Classics Uncorked designed to appeal to people curious about the symphony but may not have attended for one reason or another. The weeknight concerts start earlier, are shorter than a usual program, come with a glass of wine and encourage a more informal, interactive experience for the audience. “That series really developed a following and got a lot of people excited about the symphony who hadn’t necessarily attended before,” he says.
His thoughts on “genre blending,” one of the ways orchestras across the country are trying to appeal to new audiences by mashing up different musical styles: “It can be a good thing and a bad thing. It can be a good thing when something unique is created, and it can be a bad thing if the genres that are being blended become diluted.”
His take on Sunday’s program: Each conductor candidate is being asked to present a work from the Classical era, the Romantic era, and from either the 20th or 21st century. “That’s actually a pretty tight needle to thread in terms of crafting a program that also has a narrative to it,” Demirjian says. “That’s important to me. I recognized it was Valentine’s week, and I started thinking about ideas around romance.” He wanted to tackle romance with a capital R (the Romantic era, represented by Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony) and romance with a lower-case R (Mozart’s Overture to “Don Giovanni,” the original Don Juan, and the parental and romantic love exemplified in Gershwin’s selections from “Porgy and Bess.”) A highlight of the program will be Copland’s Clarinet Concerto: “Jazz filtered through Copland’s unique musical language: It’s edgy, it’s spiky, it’s also very spacious and lyrical at times.”
His favorite composer: “This is going to be a cop-out answer: all of them? I don’t now have a favorite composer. it’s just too hard. If there were one composer I truly couldn’t live without, it would be Bach. There are limitless depths to Bach’s music.”
On reaching new audiences: “There’s this whole conversation about how do we grow our audiences. For me, I don’t think the music orchestras play is the problem. We all need to think about what the going to a concert feels like for an average audience member. Are they there purely to appreciate the music or are they there to be entertained and have a good time as well? I try to let that govern a lot of the decisions that I make. Ultimately, we are musicians, but we are also performers.”
Loosening up: “I have a lot of friends who are my age who I know are interested in music but don’t go to concerts and it’s because they feel there is a right and a wrong way to behave when they are at a concert. The experience is too buttoned up. Or they don’t feel welcomed by the people on the stage or welcomed by the other audience members around them. No one wants to go to an experience where they don’t feel welcomed. Everywhere I go, and particularly with the orchestras I work for, I try to loosen up that atmosphere, whether it’s through programming decisions or talking from the stage, or even just saying out loud that I think the music is for everybody and that there’s no right or wrong way to experience it.”
What he listens to in the car: podcasts. Sometimes he needs a break from the music.
His favorite band: Aerosmith. (“A little old-fashioned, but yeah.”)
Is he more of a Disneyland or Magic Mountain kind of guy? “Definitely Disneyland. I’ve only ridden on one roller coaster in my life. It was because I didn’t want my wife – who was not my wife at that point and wasn’t even my girlfriend – to think I was a wimp.”
Fun fact: Demirjian majored in music and government at Harvard. That might sound like an odd combination, but it makes sense. “Ultimately politics is about human relationships, and so is music. As a conductor, you are a public representative of a cause. You have many constituencies: You have the orchestra, the staff, the board, the audience, the community that you serve. you have to be able to speak publicly. you have to win hearts and minds. There was a time when I wanted to run for public office, and in a way, that’s kind of what I’m doing right now, but the specifics have changed.”