Armen Ksajikian left his home in Los Angeles in 1989 for the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. It was his first trip to Alaska, but far from his last.
Sixteen years later, he's in the midst of his 26th trip to the state. Ksajikian, the associate principal cellist with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, is the cellist for the Sitka Music Festival's Winter Touring Series (Feb. 3-13 all over the state) and its Alaska Airlines Winter Classics (Feb. 4-6 in Anchorage).
The tour stops in Juneau at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, at Northern Light United Church. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books or at the door. The series continues to Sitka's Harrigan Centennial Hall for a 3 p.m. show on Sunday, Feb. 13.
"Juneau is sort of like one of my homes," Ksajikian said. "I always drive around, at least where it's physically possible. I always check out what is going on in Auke Bay and then in town and in the Valley."
Ksajikian met Juneau violinist Linda Rosenthal during his first trip to Fairbanks. A few years later, he met her husband, Paul. Over the last 10 years, he's been a regular at her Juneau Jazz & Classics festival and his Sitka Music Festival.
Ksajikian has been a regular in the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Paul Rosenthal's Sitka Music Festival and Linda Rosenthal's Juneau Jazz & Classics festival.
He began playing at age 12 with the Abkhazian State Philharmonic in his native Soviet Union. He moved to the United States in 1976.
Since then, he's toured the world, recorded for almost 900 motion pictures, and played for thousands of television shows, cartoons, opera and Broadway shows. He's in two string quartets and appears often with chamber music organizations throughout the Los Angeles area. He's also a 13-year member of the Armadillo String Quartet, a group known for its unusual projects and tours.
"The freelance spirit of my work in Los Angeles is such that everyday is a project, every day you don't know where you're going and most of the time you don't know what you're playing," Ksajikian said. "It's a lot like whitewater rafting, my other addiction. Playing the instrument never becomes a routine work environment, even though you end up making a good life at it."
Later this month, Ksajikian will play cello in the Academy Awards' pit orchestra at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Playing at the Oscars has been a dream of his for the last 25 years.
"It's a fairly medium to small orchestra, and of course, you have no idea what wins," Ksajikian said. "So you'll have five different musical sheets available for you and then you have to pull out the right one at the last second and listen to the conductor, who's getting all the cross instructions from different people backstage. It's going to be an interesting and hectic week."
Saturday's show will open with Mozart's "String Quartet in F Major, K. 590," one of the so-called "Prussian" quartets, written on a commission from the King of Prussia. The piece has special significance for Ksajikian. His performance of the first movement in audition finals competition earned him his spot with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
"You put me on stage and you surround me with an audience, and I don't care where it is, I'm home," Ksajikian said. "But if you put me in front of a panel of five or six people, barely 15 percent of me shows. That's why I've avoided auditions at all cost."
The second selection will be Georges Enesco's "Concertpiece for Viola and Piano," featuring Marcus Thompson (viola) and Sungmi Im (piano).
"I asked Marcus how come we don't hear this piece more often, and he said because it's so damn hard," Ksajikian said. "People just don't like to put it together in a short period of time."
Enesco (1881-1955) is known as one of Romania's greatest composers, though he was also renowned for his skill on viola.
"This piece explores certain registers of the instrument up high that normally characterize only virtuosic works," Ksajikian said. "It has real substance to it, it's not just a flashy little piece. I've always liked Enesco, but this piece really kicks butt."
Saturday's performance will conclude with Antonio Dvorak's "Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65." Though not as heralded as some of Dvorak's other works, it is notable for a striking cello-violin duet at the slow beginning of the third movement. Ksajikian played the piece for the first time a few months ago at a Cal State Irvine concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of Dvorark's death.
"It was a gorgeous piece, and I happened to be talking to Paul that weekend," Ksajikian said. "You always think you've played everything imaginable, but there's always new stuff. I didn't push much, but my excitement about the piece might have triggered him to put it in."