Baghdad Barcarolle (Nodin Press, 2008) is a new biography of Beatrice Ohanessian (1959, piano), Iraq’s foremost classical pianist. Author Holly Windle retells the fascinating story of Ohanessian’s childhood and her glamorous (and sometimes dangerous) career as a concert pianist in the Middle East.
Born into Baghdad’s vibrant Armenian community in 1927, Ohanessian displayed an early talent; by the age of 12, she was performing weekly recitals on the national radio station. Later, she was sent on a scholarship from the Iraqi government to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music and at The Juilliard School. Returning to her native land, she became pianist for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, a post she held for more than 30 years. (She kept cassettes of those performances—some with long silences from when the power went out in the concert hall.) A champion of the music of Alan Hovhaness (whom she had met in New York before playing two of his fantasies at Carnegie Recital Hall), Ohanessian served as an informal musical ambassador for Iraq, performing internationally and mingling with dignitaries, Arab princes, and presidents, as well as her peers in the musical world.
She never intended to become a composer until the start of the Iran-Iraq War, when she was moved to pour the emotional upheaval of that period into a piece that resulted in her receiving a Steinway piano from Saddam Hussein in 1981.
After the death of her parents, Ohanessian and her sister moved to Minnesota in 1994. She taught privately and at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., as well as serving as director of education at the Schubert Club, the Minnesota musical organization where she often performed.
Holly Windle interviewed Ohanessian over several years, drawing out memories of her Baghdad childhood, her musical training in Iraq and abroad, and life in a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city completely unfamiliar to most Americans. Ohanessian recalls the challenges of living in a country that underwent revolution, wars, and hardships under the U.N. sanctions.
Sadly, Ohanessian’s health failed just as the book was going to press; she died in July 2008, less than two months after her last performance. The Iraqi embassy in Washington declared an official, worldwide day of mourning for all Iraqis.