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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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