Obituaries

Ruben Vartanyan; Conductor Defected From Soviet Union

Ruben Vartanyan, who spent the past 20 years in Northern Virginia, leading the Arlington Philharmonic and other ensembles, defected from the Soviet Union in 1988. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1999.
Ruben Vartanyan, who spent the past 20 years in Northern Virginia, leading the Arlington Philharmonic and other ensembles, defected from the Soviet Union in 1988. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1999. (By Joe Furgal)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ruben Vartanyan, an orchestra conductor who defected from the Soviet Union in 1988 and spent the past 20 years in Northern Virginia, leading the Arlington Philharmonic and other ensembles, died May 7 of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Arlington County. He was 71.

Dr. Vartanyan arrived in Arlington after an early career in which he seemed poised for international success. He had conducted some of the world's leading orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic and the Moscow Philharmonic, and spent eight years as a conductor of the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow.

In 1971, soon after Dr. Vartanyan became principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Bolivia, the government was overthrown in a coup. The new military leader enjoyed music and became friendly toward Dr. Vartanyan. The KGB took notice and asked the maestro to pass on information about the Bolivian leaders. He refused, saying, "I am not a spy. I am a musician."

He dated his difficulties to that moment. When he returned to Moscow in 1976, he could not find regular work for four years. Only after appealing directly to Soviet president Leonid I. Brezhnev and leading a stunning performance of Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen" did Dr. Vartanyan get the chance to return to the podium as conductor of the Bolshoi Opera.

Yet even after leading 536 performances at the Bolshoi, he was not permitted to travel beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Finally, in 1988, he was allowed to return to Bolivia to lead a series of concerts.

On Sept. 10, 1988, he went to the U.S. Embassy in La Paz and asked for asylum. He never publicly described the circumstances of his escape, saying only that "it was very difficult and very dangerous."

With sponsorship by the Jamestown Foundation, a private group that assists defectors, Dr. Vartanyan settled in Arlington. His wife, Tatiana, had died in 1986, and he started over with little more than the clothes on his back and the music in his head.

He found occasional conducting jobs at George Mason University and the Friday Morning Music Club and, in 1991, led a guest performance with the Arlington Symphony, a community orchestra composed mostly of professional musicians.

"Everyone knew he was the best conductor any one of us had seen," Bonnie Williams, the orchestra's former executive director, told The Washington Post in 1999.

Dr. Vartanyan was named full-time music director of the Arlington Symphony in 1992 and, a year later, took on a second position as principal conductor of the Williamsburg Symphonia, a chamber orchestra. He immediately brought a new polish and professionalism to the Arlington Symphony, winning laudatory reviews.

His "operatic experience is evident in the way he shapes a phrase, almost as though it were being sung by a human voice rather than by an orchestra," Post music critic Joseph McLellan wrote in reviewing a 1995 concert.

It was Dr. Vartanyan's fortune to work "in the shadow of another alumnus of the Moscow Conservatory," Mstisvlav Rostropovich, who was the longtime music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.


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