Growing up in Syria, Saro Babikian was exposed to harsh realities many Americans can only imagine.
“I would say, in general, that being born and raised in the Middle East just automatically makes one a little bit more mature from a younger age than being born and raised in Europe or even here in the United States,” said Babikian, a classical guitarist who is set to perform with the Port Townsend Community Orchestra on Feb. 24.
That maturity likely stems from exposure to the ongoing Syrian civil war, from which Babikian fled to the United States as a teenager in 2012.
“When I was 17, I basically had to leave the country,” he said. “It was safe in Damascus, the capital where I lived, in terms of there were no actual street fights or anything like that. But there were constant bombings happening. It was a little risky staying there and living everyday life. Going outside, you never know where a bomb would come from. But it wasn’t a battlefield yet in Damascus when I was there.”
Relatives of Babikian still live in the war-torn country, he said.
“Everybody is safe. The situation is getting better,” he said. “But I had to leave. Half of my family was already here (in the United States). My brothers were here studying, so it was a family (reunion). The civil war kind of helped make that process a little faster.”
Babikian, born to Armenian parents, began studying classical guitar when he was 10, and he attended the Solhi Al-Wadi Conservatory of Music in Damascus. In 2012, he performed at the Damascus Opera House in a concert hosted by the Ministry of Culture for outstanding students of the conservatory, he said.
Babikian said the conservatory encouraged him to explore his Armenian roots.
“Musically, it helped me get better introduced to my own musical culture — the Armenian musical culture — because we were able to keep our own (culture),” he said. “It helped me to find my identity more.”
That cultural identity is harder to maintain in Southern California, where Babikian now resides, because of the massive influence of American pop culture, he said.
“Here, there is always the danger of becoming an American,” he said. “It is hard to understand what is your own culture.”
Balancing between two cultures is something Babikian experienced in Syria, he said.
“We spoke our own (Armenian) language at home until now, and I went to a local high school there, so I knew the Arabic language,” Babikian said. “I have spoken both. I was introduced to both cultures. I learned about my culture from my home, and the Arabic culture from school. We listened to songs from both cultures.”
Before the war, Syria was open to other cultures, Babikian said.
“Besides Armenians, there are a lot of other minorities in Syria,” he said. “It was basically a melting pot where a lot of minorities lived. There was always (a sense of) taking from other cultures and giving back.”
Los Angeles is similar, Babikian said.
“The picture is even bigger here and even more a variety of cultures,” he said. “You meet a lot of different people, and there are big communities of different cultures.”
In 2015, Babikian was admitted to the classical guitar program at the University of Southern California under the instruction of Scott Tennant and William Kanengiser, according to a news release. He graduated with honors with his bachelor’s degree in 2018, and he has been awarded a scholarship from USC to continue his master’s degree studies in classical guitar performance.
“In technical aspect, I think the information that I have gained here from the universities or the teachers ... here has made me a far better musician in terms of skills, technique, musicality and technicality,” Babikian said. “I definitely have developed a lot, and much faster here than I would had I stayed in Syria.”
PT orchestra concert
Babikian will appear with the Port Townsend Community Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Tigran Arakelyan, in its February concert, “French Inspired,” at 2 p.m. at the Chimacum High School auditorium, 91 West Valley Road.
Babikian will play “Fantasia para un Gentilhombre” by Joaquin Rodrigo. The concert will also include Georges Bizet’s “Carmen Suite 1,” Gabriel Faure’s “Pavane” and “Pavane pour une infante defunte” by Maurice Ravel.
The concert is free.
“I try to mix it up by having some local soloists but also bringing someone from out of town,” Arakelyan said. “It is going to be a special concert with a friend and a fantastic guitarist, Saro Babikian.”
The orchestra, founded in 1987, consists of more than 60 musicians based in Port Townsend and across the North Olympic Peninsula, Arakelyan said.
“We perform orchestral music but always try to mix it up with various other genres and composers,” Arakelyan said. “There are many young composers who write music, and just this season, we are playing two West Coast premieres by living composers James Cohn and Keith Jarrett.”
The orchestra also explores classical pieces, Arakelyan said.
“Just as with any art form, the past is part of the present, and even though the composers are not alive, the re-creation of what they have done is new and different each time,” he said. “We play in different venues, instruments, orchestras, and all of those create a different and unique experience.”
There are always new listeners, Arakelyan said.
“Our duty is to give them an unforgettable experience and hope that they keep coming back,” he said. “Every time I step on the podium, I think of young people attending the concert, and I want to give my absolute best to make it an enjoyable experience for them. My approach to these concerts is very personal. I interact with the audience before, after and, most importantly, during the performance. I think that, in the ever-changing world and in the 21st century, classical musicians should be more aware of our audiences and connect with them not only through our music but also verbally. The music can tell a story or just be an experience, but I think there is also a connection to be made through words to help people understand the context.”
Babikian will breathe new life into the timeless pieces, Arakelyan said.
“I would say if you want to hear a young rising-star guitarist, come to the concert,” he said. “If you want to hear your local orchestra that is better than ever, join us. If you want to support local arts, please join us. And, most importantly, listen to live music because it does not get better than that. We want to share our love, passion and work with other people with the hope that they have a great experience.”