Married to His Work


Conductor George Pehlivanian was going to be in town anyway. So why not stand in for an ailing Carl St.Clair leading the Pacific Symphony this week?

That would be four rehearsals, subscription concerts tonight and Thursday, and a Classical Connections program Saturday. What else did he have to do?

“I’m getting married this week!” Pehlivanian said in an interview at the orchestra’s offices. “I’m supposed to plan my marriage. I’m supposed to get the catering, valet parking, arrange the dinner. . . .”

How a 32-year-old Armenian born in Beirut, who conducts in the Hague and Vienna, came to be marrying a Parisian woman in the Southland is part of what Pehlivanian jokingly calls “a very bizarre story.”

“I had already planned to be here to get married,” he said. “I already had my plane ticket. My family lives in Long Beach. I know so many people in Southern California, being Armenian and being a USC alum, and I grew up in this area. So a lot of people know me and likewise. So we planned to get married here.”


Actually, he married Odil Versluys in Paris on March 7 in a civil ceremony. “You have to get civilly married before you go through a religious marriage,” he explained. Now they plan to be married in a church--Holy Cross Cathedral in Montebello.

Is his wife a musician? “No, she’s normal.”

After the wedding, the couple will honeymoon in Hawaii, where, “by the way, I’m giving two concerts with the Honolulu Symphony. I can’t get away from work. Music is so much a part of me, it follows me around.”

It’s been following him around almost since the day he was born in Beirut. His mother, Arpine Pehlivanian, is a well-known coloratura soprano. His sister, Elizabeth, also is a soprano. “My father was a violinist. He became a doctor because somebody has to make a living in the family. In Lebanon, you didn’t make a living as a musician.”

The younger Pehlivanian picked up the violin at 3 and began winning awards even before his age reached double digits. “Then, when I was 11, unfortunately the civil war began, in 1975. It was just terrible. I almost got killed. A rocket hit three feet above my window when I was sleeping one night. If it had exploded further down, I was kaput.”

That prompted his family to emigrate to Long Beach, where his mother’s sister lived. “A lot of Armenians from Lebanon and also Lebanese, also Iranians, a lot of people moved to Southern California during this time. It was a big mecca.”

For the next 15 years, he pursued the violin, serving as concertmaster in a number of local youth orchestras, then studying at USC and at Indiana University.

“I wanted to become maybe the concertmaster in one of the top symphonies, or a chamber musician or concert soloist. It was all supposed to be one happy story.

“Then one day I met [conductor] Lorin Maazel. He changed my life.”

Pehlivanian was 25 when he encountered Maazel at an American Symphony Orchestra League conducting workshop. He was one of five students picked to conduct in front of Maazel.

“I was so nervous I forgot where I had put my baton,” he said. “I just sat down, and I sat down on my baton and broke it in half. I had to ask one of my colleagues, ‘Could you please, you mind, please lend me your baton?’ And they did.”

After Pehlivanian conducted, Maazel encouraged him to change careers and pursue conducting. His violin teacher at Bloomington, the great Josef Gingold, gave his blessing as well.


After attending the Accademica Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, where he got his diploma in conducting, Pehlivanian won the Grand Prize at the 1991 Young Conductors International Competition in Besancon, France. Subsequently, he has become principal guest conductor of the Residentie Orchestra of the Hague and permanent principal guest conductor of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

“The first time I went on the podium to conduct, there was a feeling that came over me,” he said. “For the first time in my life I felt that this is exactly what I was born to do. People always say you will feel that way about marriage or whatever. But I never felt that. The only time I felt that was on the podium. I really was born to conduct.

“Even marriage wasn’t like that, or meeting my wife-to-be was not like that. That was a relationship that grew. The only thing that came subito presto [suddenly quickly] was conducting. So that’s why the change from violinist to conducting came so natural and so swift, without any shock to me. That’s why I changed without any hesitation.”

In conducting Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, Schumann’s Piano Concerto and excerpts from Wagner’s “Ring” with the Pacific, he said, he will try to “build contact with the musicians right away.

“Conducting is cooperating and collaborating with other people,” he said. “It’s not like the boss who comes in like Toscanini and starts yelling. I don’t believe in that. The most important thing is that the orchestra respects the conductor. You achieve that by just being yourself, first of all. Second of all, you have to know the music. That’s our job.

“The goal is to have magic moments in a concert. If I can have people tell me, ‘Oh, I had goose bumps,’ then I did my job, and Wagner did his job, and we all did our jobs.”

Pehlivanian rarely plays the violin in public these days. “I play for my wife now,” he said. “In the morning. I take out the violin, and I serenade her. It’s nice to do that.”

* George Pehlivanian will conduct the Pacific Symphony in music by Beethoven, Schumann and Wagner tonight and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Andre-Michael Schub will be the soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto. 8 p.m. $8-$44. Pehlivanian also will conduct the Classical Connections concert Saturday at the center. 3:30 p.m. $22. (714) 556-2787.