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Can A Delusional Millionaire Buy His Way To Maestro Status?

An Armenian-born American businessman has been paying to book Europe's finest concert halls so he and his orchestra can play for tiny, unimpressed audiences. Who is this mystery man?

Ashot Tigranyan, conductor and violonist
Ashot Tigranyan, conductor and violonist
Konstantin Richter

LEEDS — After just 15 minutes, the California businessman-turned-conductor offered his first off-program selection to the audience. He and his orchestra had just finished the first program selection — Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in A Minor. He peered out into the virtually empty hall, where an audience of some 80 were seated in a space meant for 1,000, nodded at the smattering of applause, then said in festive tones: “We’d now like to play something for you that’s not on the program — Bach’s Air On G String.”

The entrepreneur dabbed at the perspiration on his forehead with a white handkerchief, then lifted his violin and began to play. After the Bach piece, he moved on to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Concerto in A Major and Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. After that came Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor and Edward Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, followed by Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria.

Then — after two hours of playing that included four off-program selections — he apologized to his audience for not playing more. “We’re on tour and have to leave early tomorrow,” he said in a tone of voice that suggested he was standing in front of a mass of ardent fans who just couldn’t get enough of him.

We caught up with the American businessman Ashot Tigranyan in the northern England city of Leeds, where he had booked the Town Hall for his chamber orchestra. Leeds Town Hall is a monumental building, a kind of Victorian space that includes a concert hall, an old police station, a courtroom and 26 jail cells.

Tigranyan’s Leeds welcome wasn’t exactly as triumphant as Queen Victoria’s when she came in 1858 to inaugurate the hall. But never mind. He says he can live with the fact that few people attend his concerts. It’s OK that he and his Classical Concert Chamber Orchestra, with its 32 talented young musicians, appear before audience numbers that are anything but impressive. They’ve already played at Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica, and Oslo’s Konserthus, and now they’re touring the UK. Should he come to Berlin, he’d like to play at the Philharmonie, home to conductor Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

A bold strategy

You could call this delusional. Tigranyan calls it marketing. If you just keep booking renowned concert halls, people will eventually come, he says. But even as he makes this assertion, it doesn’t sound as if he’s in any great hurry for it to happen.

Tigranyan is 59, originally from Armenia, and grew up in the Soviet Union. He now lives near Los Angeles. He has a tired, melancholy look reminiscent of Salman Rushdie. He keeps his gray hair longer than a typical businessman, but then again he doesn’t see himself as a typical businessman, but instead as a violinist, musician and professional artist. In his press releases and concert programs, he describes himself as a world-renowned violinist who studied with the legendary Leonid Kogan at the Moscow Conservatory.

Tigranyan is not world-renowned — as a matter of fact, nobody in the music world has ever heard of him. Nor is he a great violinist. In Four Seasons, he plays a brief trio with his two female concert masters, and it’s clear that Tigranyan’s level is well below that of his musicians. True, his instrument — “a 1731 Guarneri,” he says — has a rich, warm sound to it. But Tigranyan doesn’t play cleanly, and in fast passages can’t keep up and has to be rescued by the orchestra.

A music professor at Berlin’s arts university, the Universität der Künste, who listened to recordings of Tigranyan playing says you can tell he got some solid Russian training, but “I’m sorry to say his playing is sloppy. He wouldn’t pass the entrance exam to any German music school.”

I first speak with Tigranyan on the night he appears in Leeds. He’s swapped his formal concert attire for a casual jacket, jeans, and an arty black scarf. He’s pleased with his performance, is in good spirits, and orders some Bordeaux wine. The bar at the Marriott doesn’t have Bordeaux, just some inexpensive Merlot. But he likes that too. He drinks the wine and begins to talk music. He says he is driven by a desire to improve humanity. Classical music makes human beings better people, and he says he wants to bring classical music back to the esteemed position it once held.

What's going on with him?

That Tigranyan is hard to figure out may in part be because he speaks in broken English. Or that he mumbles and is therefore difficult to understand. But maybe he just doesn’t want to be understood. Does he really believe he’s a superlative violinist? Or does he know that the millions he spends for his concerts are basically just a self-financed delusion?

No one knows where Tigranyan’s money comes from. The entrepreneur doesn’t like talking about his business. All he’ll say is that he came to the States in the 1980s with $45 in his pocket. In the next breath, he says that he spent nearly $10 million last year on his orchestra. That’s his story: a beginning, an end, but no middle. No way to find out how that $45 turned into millions.

He himself likens his story to a novel, albeit one he has little interest in discussing. “These are hard times economically,” he says. “There are people who can’t pay their mortgages, so they naturally ask, ‘Who is this guy who spends millions on an orchestra?’”

The next venue on the UK tour is Liverpool, another sad British city with a great past. Tigranyan travels with his entourage in a metallic blue VW van. The entourage comprises of a female driver, a female assistant, and a security guard. The guard is Tigranyan’s 23-year-old nephew, who sports a shaved head, mustache and heavy gold chain around his neck. The nephew says he helps Tigranyan when there’s a problem with somebody. What kind of problem? “In foreign countries, you often get people that make things difficult,” he replies. “I deal with it.”

When he calls, they come

The members of the Classical Concert Chamber Orchestra follow the VW in a green team bus. The musicians were out drinking and dancing until the wee hours the previous night, so most of them are sleeping now. Some are working their smartphones, and conversations are generally in Russian, English or Polish. The orchestra members have come together from all over Europe and the U.S. Some of them are with orchestras in Barcelona, Breslau, Helsinki. When Tigranyan calls, they take time off to come and play with him.

Not only does Tigranyan pay well, but he also spoils his musicians, and they lack for nothing. They can hardly believe they’re touring the world, playing the best concert venues, staying in four-star hotels. Which is why they don’t like talking about Tigranyan, at least while a journalist is present. They don’t want to push their luck. “Of course, people are curious about Mr. Tigranyan’s business, but I’m not interested,” the Polish cellist says. “I’m a musician.”

The American filmmaker who’s documenting the tour for a website says, “I heard it was something to do with gas stations. But I never asked him.” The violinist from Moldova who lives in Finland says, “I don’t know what business he’s in. I know very little about business. And the less I know about business, the better I sleep,” she says, laughing.

A mysterious man

Researching Tigranyan doesn’t yield much. His name appears neither in business publications nor in gossip columns. With the exception of the orchestra, his name is not associated with any company. What is documented is that in the 1990s he performed with a pianist named Jane Hesselgesser, who has since abandoned the music world to become a body builder. She has won the “Natural Miss Olympia” title several times. On websites with names like girlswithmuscle.com, the fit ex-pianist is featured wearing a flesh-colored bikini.

The bus arrives in Liverpool and the orchestra members move into the centrally located four-star Marriott with its view of the TV tower. Tigranyan is off to St. George’s Hall, touted by some as the finest neo-Greek building in Europe and seen by others as a venue with too many columns and statues in the labyrinthine interior that little old men patrol with walkie-talkies. (Curiously, St. George’s also has a courtroom and jail cells along with its two concert halls. Is there some connection in Old England between classical music and the administration of justice that now escapes us?)

Tigranyan is practicing in the Concert Room, a round space with crystal chandeliers and mirrors where writer Charles Dickens once read from his novel David Copperfield. Then the violinist’s driver takes him to the hotel. There are posters advertising the concert all over town. The posters are part of a publicity campaign that has cost Tigranyan in the six figures. The VW passes a red city bus that has a large photo of Tigranyan on it. He turns and watches the bus until it is out of sight. “That was me!” he says in tones of joyful surprise, as if he’s forgotten the photo is part of the campaign he financed.

Slowly revealing pieces of the puzzle

I speak with Tigranyan a second time at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. His suite looks out onto the Mersey River. On the glass coffee table is a copy of the latest Economist. His Guarneri is on the bed.

This time, Tigranyan offers a little bit more about himself. In the 1980s, he worked at the American Embassy in Moscow, but he won’t say how that came about. Later he, his wife and their son moved to Hollywood where he started out as a small businessman. Earning his first million was not easy. He’d opened a kind of general store that sold everything from vegetables to toothbrushes. At some point he bought a company that made violin accessories that he later sold for many millions. And yes, he did own gas stations — Shell stations in France, he says.

He mentions in passing that he intends to buy two A-320 Airbuses to start an airline, and he’s thinking of getting into the hotel and casino business in Las Vegas. Tigranyan adds that as a rule he only invests where other investors fear to tread, and that holds for his chamber orchestra too.

Tigranyan reveals something else during this encounter: He’s a Freemason. “Google Freemasons and famous people,” he says as the interview ends. He’s tired and wants to get some sleep before the concert. The list of famous Freemasons is long: Goethe, John Wayne, Mozart, Harry Houdini — but no famous violinist named Ashot Tigranyan.

A couple of hours later, a few Liverpudlians have gathered at St. George’s Hall. They are used to sold-out concerts and are surprised by all the unsold seats. “Bizarre,” says one.

Tigranyan appears on stage. He and the orchestra perform Bach’s Concerto in A Minor, Mozart’s Concerto in A Major, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the G Minor concerto. Then comes Elgar’s Salut d’Amour and Schubert’s Ave Maria. After this, Tigranyan says he’d love to play more but must get an early start in the morning.

Soon, but not today

My final talk with Tigranyan is again at night at a Marriott bar. He orders sauvignon blanc and talks politics, saying the sorts of things American millionaires tend to utter. Ronald Reagan was the last great president. Obama is a socialist. The government should leave the rich alone so that they can get on unhindered with doing good things.

On TV, there’s a Champions League soccer game in progress. Tigranyan says he loves soccer but hardly glances at the screen. He drinks the lousy sauvignon blanc, in fact orders one glass after another. At one point, he has two full glasses before him and alternates drinking from one glass then the other.

Suddenly he says he wants to tell his story. People would be amazed to hear the tale, he claims. Soon, he will reveal the whole novel, just not today. He has an early morning tomorrow. The concert hall Tigranyan has booked in Bradford is huge, seating 1,500 people. The box office has been slow, though.

In the end, 42 people attended.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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