Those of us that work in the arts know that the search for work is everlasting. For today’s Quick 5 column subject, that is not exactly true because for the past 53 seasons William Haroutounian has held the same job. He sits in the first violin section of the National Symphony Orchestra and has done so since 1963, which makes him the longest serving member of the orchestra. That in itself is a huge accomplishment but there is much more to William’s story.
William was born in Iran of Armenian ancestry. He began his study of the violin at the age of six with Ruben Gregorian, director of the Teheran Conservatory, giving his first solo recital at the age of nine. Read on for more of William’s early music background. While being a member of the NSO, he received a Master of Music degree from the Catholic University in 1972. Locally William has appeared in performances with the Washington Consort, Twentieth Century Consort, Theater Chamber Players, the Shenandoah String Quartet, and the National Symphony Chamber Players. He was concertmaster of the American Chamber Orchestra for twelve years, and frequently performed as soloist with the ensemble. He has performed as soloist with the National Symphony on several occasions, including the United States premiere of Arutiunian’s Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra as soloist with the National Symphony under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, Mr. Haroutounian has served on the faculties of Shenandoah College and Conservatory, American University, Catholic University, and George Mason University. He currently serves on the board of the MusicLink Foundation, a national non-profit organization that provides ongoing music instruction to promising students in need.
53 years of doing what you love with one of the greatest orchestras and some of the finest conductors in the world. William Haroutounian is indeed one fortunate individual. I think we the audience are pretty lucky also.
Did you know growing up that you were going to be a professional musician?
The decision that I would study the violin was actually made before I was born by my parents, who even named me after a German violinist and conductor, Willi Baskovsky, whom my parents had seen perform in a movie. I began violin studies when I was six, with my first recital at age eight and began concertizing throughout Iran, my native country, to raise funds to come to the United States to further my musical studies. I remember even playing for the Shah, which was an exciting event for a child. Music was naturally a part of my life from the start.
Oddly enough, the first time I was aware of making a choice of having music as a career was presented to me by my high school track coach, who felt I should stop studying the violin and train full time to be an Olympic sprinter. Given the fact that I was already playing in several semi-professional orchestras and had appeared as soloist with the Boston Pops, I felt that pursuing further studies in violin would be a better choice.
Had you played with other orchestras before joining the NSO?
While in high school, I played in the Springfield Symphony (MA) and the Portland Symphony (ME). I was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music and while there I was a member of the Philadelphia Grand and Lyric Opera Orchestras. These experiences further reinforced my desire to seek a career as a violinist in a major symphony. When I finished my studies at Curtis, I auditioned for the National Symphony, then conducted by Howard Mitchell.
What do you remember most about your early days playing with the NSO, and how has the orchestra grown as an organization from when you first joined?
When I joined the orchestra in 1963, the symphony season was only 32 weeks long, and the orchestra was not considered a full-time job. Many people had to supplement their income with other jobs, from driving cabs, being guards at libraries, with one member even working in a bakery. Personally, for 14 years, I spent 10 weeks during the summers with the New Marlborough Chamber Players, performing chamber music as well as teaching and managing their summer camp.
The NSO also had short tours and run-outs, traveling long hours by bus and staying in less than desirable accommodations. One of our major issues in contract negotiations included not driving on busses with re-grooved tires. While housed at Constitution Hall, we spent intermissions feeding the meters and physically playing “musical cars” changing parking places with one another. With this backdrop, the orchestra members were always a cohesive unit, always seeking to improve working conditions and musical integrity.
I have personally witnessed growth in the orchestra with each conductor bringing individual styles and musical preferences to the NSO repertoire. For example, Dorati brought his Hungarian influence, while Rostropovich established a Russian excitement to the repertoire. Slatkin focused on modern American composers and Eschenbach explores the Germanic school. The orchestra’s reputation has grown steadily through recordings and international tours.
Getting young people interested in classical music is always hard. What do you think is the best way to make this happen?
Young people learn from what they see and hear around them. What they are surrounded by now is music that is not what we would call “classical” and most children rarely get an opportunity to truly experience good classical music. If they do, it is just one day off from school brought to a concert by bus. That really will not outweigh the type of music they hear constantly on the internet, in stores – literally anywhere they are, with the media steadily bombarding them with the same music.
The only hope we have to ensure that children have the opportunity to get interested in classical music is to have music in our schools. Music should be included in school because it has its own value to learning – not to make a student better in math or science. Some children have the opportunity to enjoy private lessons; however, if we want to reach a high percentage of children, we need to secure music programs in the schools for all children.
After 53 years with the NSO, can you please tell us what you consider to be some of the biggest highlights you’ve had playing with this orchestra?
As the longest continuous playing member of the NSO, currently coming to the end of my 53rd season, I have experienced many memorable events. There are a few that stand out. For example, our tour in Greece during Dorati’s tenure included a concert on the Acropolis, with Gina Bachauer scheduled to be the soloist. While we were on stage, we learned at intermission that she had died unexpectedly. While the audience knelt in prayer, the orchestra performed the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The audience heeded Dorati’s request of no applause, ending the concert in reverent silence.
In addition, any time Leonard Bernstein conducted the NSO, it was a highlight, with the performance of Beethoven’s 9th a vivid memory.
An experience that was truly unique was the NSO’s first trip to the Soviet Union, which was, in fact, Rostropovich’s homecoming after leaving his native country in protest. Admirers surrounded our busses everywhere we went, even climbing to the rooftop of the concert hall in St. Petersburg to look in through the windows. Our second trip to Russia during the transition from Gorbachev to Yeltsin included a performance in Red Square on a freezing winter day. Members played with coats, fur hats, and gloves, and in desperation, even tried to play in mittens! Quite a challenge while performing the 1812 Overture!
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos brought imaginative repertoire and prestine performances to the orchestra. His performance of Carmina Burana with the Basque choir stands out vividly. Of course it will be hard to forget the final performance of his career. While conducting The Pines of Rome with the NSO, he was caught by orchestra members when he began to collapse on the podium. Rather than leaving the stage, he insisted on continuing, conducting the last movement seated on the podium facing the orchestra. At the music’s climax, he found the energy to stand up and finish the work with a flourish, with audience and some orchestra members in tears.