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From Juilliard to Lewes

Sylvia Ahramjian brings classical violin to the beach

November 7, 2017

For Sylvia Ahramjian, music is life. 

It’s taken her all over the world. It’s provided a lifelong career. It was even the reason she met her husband. 

“The thing that all performers want to do is perform,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to communicate with people and hopefully bring joy of music into their lives. I’ve really enjoyed doing that in Lewes.” 

Ahramjian is a member of the Lewes Chamber Players, a classical trio that plays throughout the year in the St. Cecilia Guild concert series at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Joining Ahramjian are her husband and cellist Ovidiu Marinescu, and T.J. Thomas, St. Peter’s Minister of Music, who plays piano, organ and harpsichord. With Ahramjian on violin and viola, the ensemble plays a different collection of classical pieces each concert. The next concert, set for 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 12, will follow a French theme, and the trio will be joined by internationally renowned countertenor Augustine Mercante.

The Lewes Chamber Players are in the midst of their second season at St. Peter’s. Ahramjian said she will continue to play for the Lewes audience as long as there’s interest. She said they try to make the performance a little more interactive than typical classical concerts. 

“We try to talk to the audience,” she said. “Classical musicians can be terribly serious, and I think we have to learn from the pop world that you have to engage with your audience.” 

Talking to the audience is one thing, but offering insights is another. 

“We’re not delivering musicology lectures,” she said. “We’re telling something about the piece more from a personal point of view and what it means to us. People really respond to that.”

Thomas said he was introduced to Ahramjian in 2015, when he hired her to play for a church service. She came highly recommended by his colleague Gary Harney, who was the director of Immanuel Bach Consort in New Castle.

“Our meeting started a friendship and fruitful artistic collaboration,” Thomas said. 

Ahramjian’s career as a professional musician can be traced back to a public school program in Detroit, Mich. When she was about 9 years old, school officials had students take a music aptitude test. If a student passed, they could play any instrument they wished. Although her mother played the piano, Ahramjian’s choice was the violin. 

“I just loved the sound of the violin,” she said. 

Her first lessons came from a trumpet player, of all people. But after some time, a new music teacher entered into the picture and urged her to learn from a string teacher. Her parents found Emily Adams Austin, a violinist in the Detroit Symphony. 

“I really admired her,” Ahramjian said. “She really took me to a much more serious point.” 

When asked when she knew she had a little more talent than the average child her age, Ahramjian gave a humble answer.

“I don’t think you really ever know about your own talent,” she said. “By the time I was 13, I knew this was what I wanted to do.” 

But the Juilliard School for the Arts doesn’t just take anyone, and Ahramjian was accepted to the school after a rigorous audition.

“You have to play a major concerto for them and you have to go there for a live audition,” she said. “You walk in the room and you have about 10 minutes to play. All the teachers are there and they decide if they’re going to accept you or not.” 

The acceptance rate at Juilliard ranges from 5.5 percent to 8 percent today. Ahramjian studied there during her college years from 1966-70. 

After Juilliard, Ahramjian earned her master’s degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where she studied with renowned violinist Josef Gingold. She continued her studies at the University of Illinois, working with another well-known violinist, Paul Rolland.

Eventually the student became the teacher. Ahramjian taught at Wilmington Music School before starting a 37-year career at West Chester University in 1976.

“I’ve always felt performing and teaching are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “You want to share what you do, talk about what you do, and you want to do it yourself.” 

Three years ago, she decided it was time to move on from the university. She taught one semester at Ithaca College in New York before retiring. 

“I certainly did not want to stop playing music,” she said. “It was then that I really had time to practice and organize things like the Lewes concert series with my husband.”

She also has the luxury of offering private lessons to students who are eager to learn.

During her career she’s also traveled and played around the world, including Romania, Brazil and China. It’s a thrill to perform on the global stage, she said.

“It’s always exciting when you go to another country and you’re a featured soloist,” she said. “You’re in an unfamiliar environment, but you’re meeting all these new people.”

Ahramjian has also recorded pieces with Parma Recordings from various composers for both violin and viola as well as solo music. 

If there’s one thing left to accomplish, she said, she wants to make classical music more accessible to children. She said she thinks the Lewes Chamber Players performances could attract parents and their children, and she hopes to work with the Lewes library in the future to introduce children to classical music. 

To learn more about the Lewes Chamber Players, go to stpeterslewes.org/music/st-cecilia-guild.