It is a long way from a childhood in a Lebanese orphanage to conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and launching an international charity with actor George Clooney, but this is the journey made by Chorleywood resident, Armenian-born Vartan Melkonian.
Kathy Walton meets him…
Earlier this year, Vartan, who grew up in a children’s home near Beirut and went on to work at the heart of the British classical musical establishment, earned the title of Life No. 1 in 100 Lives, a charitable project commemorating the centenary of the Armenian Massacre, which took place on 24 April 1915. Three quarters of the Armenian population (an estimated 1.5m people) were killed by the Turks as part of their bid to rid the Ottoman Empire of Christians.
Acknowledged as the 20th century’s first genocide, the 1915 Massacre and its aftermath was the most brutal in a series of campaigns that had begun in 1894 (and continued until 1923) with the purpose of rounding up and slaughtering Christians in Ottoman territory (now parts of Armenia, Syria and Turkey). Thousands of intellectuals and leading figures in the Armenian community of Constantinople (now Istanbul) were deported, or, mostly, executed. Just 500,000 Armenians survived; those that did so owed their escape largely to the help of friends and neighbours, both Muslim and Christian, who gave sanctuary to the persecuted.
Vartan explains that without these ‘Samaritans’, the entire Armenian people would have been all but wiped out, which is why several of them, as well as notable survivors and their descendants, are being honoured by 100 Lives. (Fellow Brit of Armenian heritage, the pioneering surgeon and Privy Councillor Lord Varzi of Denham, is Life No. 4).
It is a cause that couldn’t be closer to Vartan’s heart, whose own father was one of the children rescued. “It is so important for all those people who gave their lives to save others from the genocide and it means a great deal to me to say thank you to those people,” he says.
Vartan has just returned from New York where, on March 10, he helped launch 100 Lives and its inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, which will recognise those who put themselves at risk for the sake of humanitarian causes. The Aurora Prize is named after the late Aurora Mardiganian (Life No. 2), who was sold by the Turks into a harem, but managed to escape to the US, where she raised millions for Armenian orphans.
The first winner of the prize will be announced in 2016 on 24 April, the date that Diaspora Armenians have long referred to as Genocide Remembrance Day.
When I catch up with Vartan, he is full of enthusiasm for both the prize and the 100 Lives launch event, which brought him face to face with the handsome features of George Clooney, joint chairman of the prize selection committee.
“George is a surprisingly humble and easy-going man. He speaks, he listens, he is engaging and is very well versed,” says Vartan, who had dinner with Clooney and his wife Amal Alamuddin.
Clooney’s involvement in 100 Lives is thanks in part to the work of Amal, an international lawyer who represented the Armenian nation against a genocide denier at the European Court of Human Rights in January; and also to his own credentials as co-founder of the awareness-raising organisation, Not On Our Watch (NOOW).
Together with fellow actors Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, Clooney created NOOW in 2008, to use education as a means of preventing further episodes of ethnic cleansing, such as those committed in Armenia, Nazi Germany and more recently in Croatia, Rwanda and Syria.
“George has a real heart for humanitarian causes and is really passionate [about them]. He comes across so well. He isn’t just a figurehead,” says Vartan of Clooney, whose wife grew up in Gerrards Cross and, coincidentally, is a long time family friend of Vartan’s.
But being on first name terms with a Hollywood heart throb is just one of the many strings to the bow of this remarkable man. Last year, for example, he was invited to the House of Commons to celebrate 20 years as a patron of the Consortium for Street Children, a charity founded by former Prime Minister John Major. In 1982 Vartan set up a charity in aid of the orphanage that took him in; and he is also a UN Ambassador for Street Children.
These are impressive achievements for anyone, let alone a boy whose four grandparents perished in the 1915 Massacre and whose parents (both of whom were raised in refugee camps in Beirut) died by the time he was roughly three.
Now ‘about’ 66, Vartan knows he must have been born on 20 February (he was named for the saint of that day, St Vartan, a former soldier who made Armenia the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD). What he doesn’t know however, is the year of his birth. Because he has no photos or records from his very early life, all he knows is that he was baptised in 1954 at the Birds’ Nest Orphanage in Byblos, 35km north of Beirut, when he was judged to be three or four.
After the death of his parents, Vartan’s ‘Mama’ was Maria Jacobsen (Life No. 6), a Danish missionary who founded the Birds’ Nest. There, together with his three sisters and his brother, the future classical musician remembers being taught hymns and harmonies by Maria until he was ‘about’ eight, the age at which boys had to leave the home and fend for themselves. (His sisters were allowed to stay to be ‘mothers’ to younger orphans and later married Armenian men).
“I took the cattle train to Beirut and ended up on the street,” recalls Vartan. “I went back to the orphanage once a week to see my sisters and Mama – it was the only home I knew – but I lost contact with my brother.” The two boys were not reunited for another five years.
From then on, young Vartan took any work he could find - in the port, in a mortuary – and slept in doorways and even in a broken boat. Blessed with an innate gift for music, he and other street friends earned money singing and playing to sailors in Beirut’s red light district. By the late 1960s, their band was reputed to be one the best in Lebanon and by the 1970s, they had their own TV show and a flat in town.
Disaster struck when the flat was blown up in the Lebanese Civil War of 1972/73 and Vartan fled with an English friend to Lincolnshire, where he started singing in working mens’ clubs. “Can you imagine ending up in Skegness after an exotic part of the Middle East?” asks a still incredulous Vartan. “I’d never even seen a pint of beer before.”
Touring Northern clubs proved good experience, though, and soon Vartan made it to London, performing for seven years in West End night clubs, before becoming a conductor with the Royal Philharmonic in 1985.
It is a wonderfully uplifting tale, embellished further by Vartan’s marriage to a Slovakian artist (whose day job is showing dignitaries around Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, where she is known affectionately as ‘the Queen’s ambassador’) and by the birth of their two children, Veronica, now 21, who is reading economics at Surrey University; and Richard, 23, a student at the Guildhall School of Music, where he has just won the year prize for composition.
Vartan and his family moved to Chorleywood 15 years ago and now live just yards from Chenies Manor, a far cry from the slums of Beirut.