This summer, seven young Diasporans travelled to Armenia to participate in AGBU’s Musical Armenia Program (MAP) where they studied under master musicians and learned about their musical heritage. For most of the participants, who hailed from Bulgaria, Canada and the United States, the trip was their first to Armenia.
For 22-year-old Shaghig Kazandjian, the trip ended in an unexpected opportunity— a chance to perform with the Orchestra of the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre of Armenia, and a job offer to stay. The French horn player speaks about her big break and why she wants to make Armenia home.
This trip exceeded all my expectations,” Kazandjian said emotionally as she watched the sun set over the green, hilly terrain outside Dilijan.
She had just been offered a job with the prestigious orchestra and invited to play at the opening performance of the National Ballet's performance of Romeo and Juliet. It all started with her own initiative, and a program that complemented her dreams.
"I had been planning for five months to come to Armenia by myself. My intention was to contact people at the philharmonic to look into lessons with members of the orchestra...all I wanted was to be mentored by them, see Armenia and have that experience," she said.
When a friend told her about MAP, it seemed like the perfect fit.
"It was one part cultural and one part historical in terms of music lessons. It's really like a pure conservatory setting but it just means so much more because it's about my roots," she said.
For the young Toronto native with curly dark brown hair, that decision was itself a journey. As a young girl, she took little interest and even avoided her heritage. Despite never seeing Armenia with her own eyes, she had a change of heart as she transitioned from high school to university.
"I actually started thinking about my future and how I want to live. I realized that this is a special identity, that I want to keep my culture...and I decided I had to go to Armenia,” she said.
MAP, an AGBU initiative launched in 2012, gave Shaghig the chance to experience Armenia firsthand with access to the best of the country's musical institutions and programs for the participants. The days were filled with lessons tailored for each participant, and the evenings with trips to performances. "What's amazing is we're consistently surrounded by live music," Kazandjian said.
While at the Yerevan Opera to attend the performance of Spartacus, Shaghig was so impressed by the music, she stayed to talk to the musicians.
"I went backstage, found one of the musicians and talked to him for about 10 minutes. Within that time, he introduced me to another horn player. He hadn't even heard me play and just said, 'be here tomorrow at 11 o'clock; there's a rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet,"
"I said, 'are you serious?' "Kazandjian brought her French horn and joined the orchestra's first rehearsal the next day.
"They asked me to come back to the second rehearsal and had me play first horn. It was very trusting... they wanted me to get that experience," she said.
During the break, the manager made Kazandjian a proposal she could not refuse: a six-month trial with the orchestra. And of course she would play on opening night.
"I said that would be a khentanalik (crazy) opportunity!" On opening night, Kazandjian played first chair.
"This never would have happened so fast in Toronto," she said. Back in Canada, the competition among musicians is cutthroat, and for Kazandjian, the missing piece was the camaraderie.
Today, Kazandjian is apartment hunting in Yerevan—her new home. Although she has some concerns about her financial future, the decision to repatriate comes above all.
"I wanted to live in Armenia from the first day I arrived. It was just a question of finding out how," she said beaming.