Iraqi Armenian famous pianist and pioneer in music
Having started piano lessons when she was just 6-years-old, Beatrice is a national idol in Iraq today.
Entering the Iraq Conservatory at the age of 11, which was founded by the King's brother for musicians 17-years and older, Beatrice was amongst the first and youngest to be admitted to the program. At 16, after completing her studies, she started working as an assistant to Rumanian piano professor, Julien Hertz. An audition for the first musical scholarship ever awarded to an Iraqi citizen then landed Beatrice the opportunity to study at the Royal Academy of Music.
Beatrice returned to Iraq to teach music at the Conservatory. Around the same time, she was offered a Fulbright Scholarship to train at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. She concluded her year at Juilliard with a debut performance at Carnegie Recital Hall.
“When my second year was up, I went to Minnesota to visit my brother, Arsham and his wife, Charlotte, and played with the Minnesota Orchestra,” says Beatrice. “Everyone told me I should stay in America, but an inner voice told me I should go back to Iraq and teach my fellow countrymen to love music. Classical music was new to penetrate Iraq and it needed people like me there to nurture it.” So in 1959, she packed her bags, boarded the Queen Mary and sailed to London, and then to Iraq.
When she returned, she began teaching, performing and making music at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. She was interviewed on Iraqi television, invited to play with orchestras, and traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, Scandinavia, Russia and Armenia to solo perform.
For Beatrice, her most thrilling event came in 1980, when she wrote the first Iraqi Western composition contributing to the war efforts. For the first six months of blackouts during the Iraq-Iran war, Beatrice composed and practiced by candlelight. Once the piece was complete, her work was orchestrated, performed, and televised. Her success at composing encouraged her to write seven others between 1990 and 1994.
Despite the sound of missiles dropping, Beatrice continued to play music inside and outside of Iraq. Her last stint in Iraq was in 1994, when she organized, for the fifth year in a row, the annual Babylon International Festival of Music, Dance and Opera.
For the past five years, Beatrice has been living in Minnesota, along with her sister, Sita and brother, Arsham. She continues to teach piano at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College, as well as privately. “My advice to other musicians starting out is to have a sincerity of approach, a readiness for discipline, and a willingness to sacrifice,” says.
Source: Lisa Boghosian Papas
AGBU website, 01 July 1999
Photo by Marianne Comb (2004)
Note: Beatrice Ohanessian died in 2008
Read obituary here