On December 21, the night before five sold-out performances of the Nutcracker Ballet were to begin, the Los Angeles Ballet had a pretty serious problem: the orchestra had no conductor.
The orchestra - made up of veteran musicians who had played the ballet for many years - had just two rehearsals prior to the performances. This year, however, they did not have their regular conductor, and things weren't coming together with the sub. Mid-way through the dress rehearsal, organizers decided that a radical change was necessary on the podium.
That's when they asked concertmaster Bruce Dukov if he could step in and conduct the ballet. He immediately rejected the idea.
"I did take conducting at Juilliard, but my conducting is certainly not on the level to do a ballet," Dukov told me. So Bruce turned around to the violinist sitting third chair: Armen Anassian.
"I'd never seen him conduct before, but he knows the ballet frontwards and backwards," Bruce said. "So I said, 'Armen can conduct - you should ask Armen to do it!'"
In reality, Armen has quite a lot of training as a conductor, as well as experience, mostly in Europe. "But people here don't know that," he told me.
However, he never had conducted a ballet - and certainly not with less than 24 hours notice.
"Of course, now I had a giant pit in my stomach," Armen said. Nonetheless, he took the podium. "I tried it, and it went extremely well."
Dukov was more effusive: "He stepped up there and was in full command, complete confidence," he said. "The whole orchestra was in awe."
It went so well that after the rehearsal, the choreographer came to Armen and asked him to conduct the orchestra for the whole run - all five performances.
At that point, it was 11 p.m., and first performance was 2 p.m. the next day.
"It's not just that I needed to learn the score, but also I needed to work with the choreographer to learn all the visual cues," Armen said, "it's not just orchestra, it's ballet!"
And no pressure, but these were five completely sold-out performances at the Los Angeles's Dolby Theatre, which seats 3,400 people.
"The show was so sold out, I couldn't even take my mother!" Armen said.
"I spent the entire night marking up score - and air conducting," Armen said. "Then in the morning I spent time with choreographer." It was his first time conducting a ballet, and "they were using ballet terms I didn't know - 'Wait for her to do the fish,' they said - what is the fish? I didn't know! So they were showing me."
All that last-minute cramming worked - the performances went beautifully.
"Armen was unbelievable," Bruce said. "He had such natural movement, he was so secure in his conducting, and he knew the music so well. It was truly a Christmas miracle."
In fact, Armen just kept getting better with every performance, Bruce said. "The way he blossomed into this so naturally - to watch him conduct this so perfectly, it was such a revelation."
For Armen, "It was overwhelming," he said. "It was wonderful - the orchestra was really lovely to me. They surprised me with gifts and speeches - they created a huge poster of me conducting them, and everyone wrote on it."
Armen has a successful performing career as a violinist, playing in just about every orchestra in the Los Angeles area, including as associate concertmaster in the Los Angeles Opera. He has also played as a soloist with orchestras around the world, and he is a regular in the recording studios of Hollywood.
"But my dream was to become a conductor," Armen said. At age 59, he wasn't sure if that dream was going to happen. "We age, and we reconcile with having to kiss certain dreams goodbye - but who knows! This Christmas has been just magical for me."
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