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Vartan Manoogian, Violinist

Violinist Vartan Manoogian is kindly, gentle and very soft-spoken. His demeanor is relaxed and friendly, almost mirthful. Outwardly he is slender and elegant of bearing and rather European in appearance. Just beneath this placid surface, however, there lies a powerfully intense musician, passionately committed to his art, quietly but earnestly passing along his great experience to students and audiences.

The musical polish of Manoogian's performances is so luminous that it might be hard to believe the person working these miracles could be such an approachable and engaging conversationalist, keenly interested in exchanging ideas, but also down to earth, always ready to enjoy good food and good humor. He is a wonderful raconteur.

Manoogian's outlook has deep roots in a rich family background, in formative years in Baghdad (where his Armenian parents took refuge from war in their homeland), in extremely challenging though rewarding student years in Paris, and in a long performing career as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestra player.

Local audiences have been enjoying Manoogian's fiery violin-playing since 1980, when he became a professor at the UW. His upcoming recital -- Friday, April 18, at the UW's Mills Hall -- features a particularly interesting program. For one thing, all three works are unaccompanied. For another, all are extremely demanding, beginning with the finger-breaking Chaconne from Bach's Partita in D Minor, continuing with the virtually unknown 5th Sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe (1922), and concluding with Bartok's Sonata for Solo Violin (1944, his last completed work). The Bartok sonata exists in two versions, one published after the composer's death by Menuhin, who commissioned it, and an even more difficult original manuscript version, which Manoogian will play. The performance should amply demonstrate his rare musical talent.

Manoogian was born in 1936 in Baghdad, where it was easy for the receptive child to become interested in music. "Within Baghdad's Armenian enclave there were rich folk-music traditions," he says. "We sang, we danced, we recited poetry."

Disparate cultures mixed easily in this environment, Manoogian's native language and its Orthodox religion melding with fluent Arabic language and the dominant Islamic tradition surrounding him. "I grew to love Arabic poetry," he says. "We learned tremendous amounts of it by heart, and recited often."

Encouraged by a violinist brother, Manoogian soon took up that instrument and by age 10 had become quite serious about his playing. "However," he says, "there was no professional uptightness about it; from the beginning it was plain joy." Joyfulness in music-making might well be the most noticeable outward characteristic of his playing to this day.

Amid the cultural fervor of poetry, art and music in Baghdad, Manoogian flourished. When he was 16, a French cultural attaché approached him after a recital and strongly encouraged him to go to Paris to study at the prestigious Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique. Without a scholarship, however, such a venture would be impossible. "Understand," Manoogian says, "that admission into the Conservatoire is practically equivalent to becoming a French citizen (except for voting purposes), as the stipend provides for everything, including living expenses and all the costs of your training. The competition to get in is very demanding. My brothers got together to help me try for it."

It was arranged that the young man could stay in Paris with the parents of a French cellist then living in Baghdad, and at 17 Manoogian flew there, speaking but little French. Aspiring students were expected to present an audition, and all violinists were to play the same three pieces: a Vieuxtemps concerto, the fiendishly difficult cadenza to the Brahms concerto and (most demanding of all) a Bach unaccompanied sonata. He had a scant two weeks to prepare. "I practiced 12 hours a day," says Manoogian.

He passed the audition. "After you are accepted, Paris opens for you. The Conservatoire maintains a box at the Opéra so that students can attend. Not even Julliard does that. But you were expected to participate fully in the music life of Paris. You got into all concerts for free. So being accepted was rather like being touched by God."

Blessings seemed to follow young Manoogian around, for after a concert in Sienna he was invited to join the Quintetto Chigiana, though he was still a student. "It was very tempting," he says, "but I turned it down to continue my studies."

In retrospect this was probably a wise decision, because great things lay ahead. Manoogian came to New York, where he studied at the Julliard School with the great violin teacher Ivan Galamian. Upon completing his studies he was soon back in Europe, first as the associate concertmaster of the Lausanne (Switzerland) Chamber Orchestra, and later as the concertmaster of the world-renowned Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet.

"The time with Ansermet was enriching," he says. "The repertory included Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok." These were composers seldom programmed by other orchestras; in the mid-'60s, Stravinsky and Bartok were still considered rather avant-garde by the musical establishment.

In 1968 Manoogian toured Japan with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, under the baton of Paul Kletzki. "After our first concert, I went to a record store to pick up one of our recordings. There were none to be had; they had all been purchased as a result of the concert. I could hardly believe it!"

Achievements and honors began to accumulate for Manoogian. He won an Emmy for his 1976 performance of Mozart's Concerto in A Major on educational television. He received a Certificate of Honor from the Pablo Casals Festival in Puerto Rico. He toured nine South American countries under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department. Composers dedicated new works to him, and he premiered music by composers like Milton Babbitt.

Part of Manoogian's animus is to share what he knows and feels, and it is this that brought him to teaching, first at the North Carolina School for the Arts, then at Indiana University in Bloomington, and since 1980 at the UW-Madison. "It's a natural consequence of performing," he says. "You have to contribute something when you play. Sometimes we shy away from our feelings, but interaction is important, and in these times of perfection in recordings feelings can get lost." He tells a story of the legendary violinist Heifetz, who allowed a performance with flaws to be recorded because it showed something human in music-making.

Talented students from all over the world come to Madison to seek Manoogian out. "Of course, they arrive under the spell of technically perfect recordings," he says. "But recordings are really a distortion of reality, one in which human frailty can be edited out, and sometimes the students are intolerant of this human element. Young people are often confronted by problems arising from romantic notions or from ego, and they need to find ways to deal with that. Sometimes they are not as well prepared as they should be. Whatever the challenge is for each individual, I try to find a way to mediate the duel between their past and their future at the same time."

To succeed in performance, Manoogian feels, students must have strong assertive qualities, yet also be able to cooperate with partners. The tension between group and individual influences is everywhere: in the scores themselves, in the technical challenges, in the musical problems, in improvisation, even in the performance space. Manoogian puts these challenges to his students unflinchingly. He admires their personalities greatly, enjoying the task of opening each student to his or her personal best. The ethos he tries to impart, he says, is: "Find what you need for yourself. Find your music and be saturated with love, blindly in love with it."

Notwithstanding these high ideals, Manoogian tries to prepare his students for real professional life as violinists. Out in the real world, they can be soloists, orchestra players, chamber musicians or teachers. "I tell them they can't live in a dream," he says. "They must be ready to accept an opening under any of these four outlets for work as a violinist."

Returning again and again to the love element of making music, Manoogian formed a 15- member student string ensemble called Philomusica ("love of music"). This group is of a size that no member can hide, yet each must become part of something larger than themselves. Next month, Philomusica will take part in a professional recording of Kathleen Hoover's Concerto for two violins and strings, with the UW's David Perry and Suzanne Beia as soloists.

Manoogian continues his performing career both in Madison and in various European festivals. In addition, he has been working for some time on a book detailing violin technique. This project has made inroads on his performing schedule, but is now nearly finished.

Manoogian continues to thrive on musical challenges. Appearing in recital recently with pianist Howard Karp, he presented the incredibly demanding Third Sonata by Georges Enesco, one of music history's most extraordinary geniuses and Manoogian's teacher during his Paris days. It was a first performance of the work for both Manoogian and Karp, and to say that it was brilliant is somehow an understatement. The performance was imbued with deep reverence and fervent passion.

Karp finds that Manoogian is very easy to work with. "He doesn't just get by on his ability to play," he says. "He's very creative and full of ideas, and I've found that he likes to rehearse much more than other duos I've been involved with. It was very special: We each realized that we were fulfilling a childhood dream."

Manoogian seems well settled in Madison. He and Brigitte Manoogian have been married for 30 years. She is an artist, working mostly in fibers and in sculpture. He describes her as a careful critic who has a very keen musical ear and who is a great inspiration to him. Their son Avedis, a pianist, is about to start graduate school.

Manoogian, obviously, feels very fortunate to be a musician. "Do you know any other profession where you can immerse yourself in the most intimate thoughts without having to tell anyone, yet you're standing right there, expressing it? There is a holiness in being able to bring such joy to others. When you can give this, it's absurd to think of doing anything else."

Isthmus, April, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson

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