Music to Our Ears: Vartan Aghababian Earns Doctorate

If you were among the fortunate attending the reception in the home of Dr. Vahagn and Mary Jo Agbabian and asked the question “Is there a doctor in the house?” the answer would have been a resounding “Yes!”

Father, Vahagn, and now son Vartan proudly bear the title “Doctor,” the elder being a longtime local healing physician and the other a recent recipient of his doctor of musical arts (DMA).

The tasteful Armenian art and oriental rug-filled Bloomfield Hills residence of the Agbabian’s was the perfect setting where the new Dr. Vartan Aghababian (he prefers the original spelling) was being feted amongst a group who had followed his journey from childhood to this—his lifelong desire and achieved accomplishment of DMA.

Guests were provided with drinks and lively conversation by the gracious close-knit family in a welcoming atmosphere, flawless in every respect.

Born in Detroit and presently a resident of Boston, Vartan began his piano studies at age eight and very soon after began composing. His private studies included the recorder, the oboe, and English horn, voice, and dance. He performed in choirs, orchestras, wind ensembles, as well as many solo and chamber performances. He followed his destiny.

He studied with William Bolcom and Leslie Bassett while earning his B.M. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and afterwards with James Hartway of Wayne State University, Detroit. He then received a diploma in film scoring from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. In Los Angeles, he pursued a career as a film music editor with Warner Brothers Studios.

He returned to Boston to work as a freelance composer, scoring short documentary films and composing on commission. He completed his master’s in composition at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass. in 2002, and completed his doctoral in music composition in 2008 at Boston University while studying with Samuel Headrick.

Vartan’s music has been performed across the United States, in East Asia, and Europe. He is currently the composer in residence for the vocal ensemble “Recuerdo,” a position he has held for five years. He is a member of the music theory and composition faculties at the Longy School of Music and the South Shore Conservatory in Massachusetts.

One wonders when he still has time to teach privately and to compose on commission. He is the music director for the chamber ensembles at the Boston University Academy and at the Longy School of Music.

Is it any wonder his parents and siblings are very proud of the new doctor in the house? When the elder Dr. Agbabian was asked just how much all this education cost him and Mary Jo, the quiet man smiled broadly, shaking his head with pride and saying, “Plenty.”

With printed booklets in hand containing the musical program, comfortably seated guests were warmly welcomed by Vartan as he explained the evening’s concert. He said, “Forgive me for not performing tonight. All the music you will be hearing is composed for specific instruments. That’s why I am playing the CD. My brother Aram will assist me and at the conclusion I have a CD for each of you.”

Vartan, a devotee to the music of Komitas, Alan Hovaness, and Babajanian, said, “I know you will be looking for Armenian themes in my music.” In “Allegretto,” which he composed for violinist Carol Kalvonjian, Vartan drew inspiration for his themes and harmonies from the music of Komitas and Spendiarian. “I love so much of the music of Armenian composers. It is music that I have performed and heard throughout my life. I am grateful to any Armenian composer that gets their music out to the public,” he said.

Vartan’s rapt audience consisted of many non-Hyes and Armenians. Very proudly sitting to one side were his early piano instructor Margaret Benian and vocal instructor Gene Barnstrom—instrumental in his early years of the right musical building blocks.

The two brothers then proceeded to play the CD containing a series of recordings, described as a “virtual concert” composed by Vartan. Some were older works and others more recent, recorded during live performances.

It was an amazing night for all of us. The booklet contained such terms as movements, sections, themes, harmonies, full four movement sonatas, metrical choices, and many other composition terms tutoring this guest to the complicated world of composing. Vartan has mastered it all, and it leaves one in awe that although we can enjoy beautiful music we now have an idea of the intricacies of putting it together to please the ear.

Some of his works were written to the works of famous poets such as “Men Triolet” by Dorothy Parker. Especially compelling was “Lento,” a work to which the composer admits he has an emotional attachment. The CD gift given to all has provided hours of great listening pleasure compounded by the fact the composer is this young Armenian DMA.

That Vartan Aghababian was driven to success can be no surprise. He is effusive in his praise of his parents’ support: “Mom and Dad, you’ve been the most important part of everything that has lead me to this day. And oh, hey, Dad, you’re the physician in our family and so you’re the one that everyone is to call ‘Doctor.’ I’m quite happy with ‘Professor,’ which is what you called me years ago when I got my first pair of glasses.”

All four of the Aghababian children were given every educational opportunity to excel in their chosen field by their supportive parents. An outside observer will note with pleasure the Hyegagan hoki (Armenian spirit) they all demonstrate. They attended Armenian Church and school and Armenian words flow freely from Vartan’s mouth.

Vahagn the father is the quiet unassuming proud Vanetsi you see at all the Armenian book signings, lectures, and community events, accompanied by his charming wife Mary Jo, a former nurse by profession who is an unquestioned Armenophile. By her own admission, Mary Jo of German, Swiss, and Irish heritage, thinks she is Armenian. She is one in a million and has caught everyone’s attention with her love of Armenian culture. She is also active in the Armenian Renaissance Association. Husband and wife have traveled several times to Armenia and were great friends of the late Archbishop Mesrop Ashjian, in support of his charitable efforts there.

Especially poignant was the inclusion in the booklet of the names of Vagharsh and Noemi Aghababian, and George and Barbara Wonacott, Vartan’s maternal and paternal grandparents, and many others who obviously played an important part in his life. This display of deep respect is what separates the well mannered from the disconnected. Bravo!

The concert was followed by cocktails and a lovely mezza presentation. Lingering guests were additionally treated to imported apricot brandy, stimulating the swapping of fascinating stories connected to their experiences within the Armenian community. It was an exceptional evening and we congratulate the new Dr. Aghababian for his success and the creative fulfillment of his dreams.

Just call him “Professor.”


Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”

1 Comment

  1. Thanks Betty…
    For your beautiful hearty article
    You knew well.. how to introduce
    Vahagn the young composer
    To every one of Us…

    I hope he will be
    Our new millennial Gomidas…

    We are always proud
    Of our clever artful generation…
    We lost many ‘Unreplaceable Genes’ 
    What’s remained are few …

    But still are able to give
    In spite of endless difficulties
    Our grandparents faced
    Because of Unvanishable
    ‘Loving Life Will’…!

    We wish our good genes
    To grow fast as a big tree
    Giving continues Colorful Fruits…
    Budding leaves…resisting strong winds…

    And stay thousand and thousand years… 
    As it resisted continuously most difficulties 
    And struggled till last breathe to light and live…!


    June 1, 2011

    Written instantly

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