By MIKE DUNHAM
So who is the guy playing his cello for Alaska brown bears in Sitka?
Armen Ksajikian is among the best musicians to play in Alaska, a regular at Sitka Summer Music Festivals of chamber music, the Autumn and Winter Classics in Anchorage and tours to smaller towns including Bethel and Kotzebue.
He’s also possessed of an enormous sense of humor. His official bio’s call him “one of the finest cellists in Eagle Rock, Calif.” If you get his voice mail, you hear barnyard sound effects of animals clucking and mooing while a female voice instructs, “Leave a message and Armen will call you back right after his master class.”
Ksajikian was raised in Sokhumi, Abkhazia, in the former USSR. His late father, Arsen, was a dental surgeon. His mother, Seta, was at one time a dancer with an Armenian dance company. He began playing with orchestras when he was 12. He cam to America in 1976 performed with Jascha Heifetz in his master class (restricted to livestock of the human sort), and has been featured soloist with numerous orchestras, including the LA Philharmonic. He has presented the premieres of works by Peter Schickele's (better known as P.D.Q. Bach) including a string quartet titled, “The Moose,” just to keep the animal theme going here.
But his real bread and butter is as a Hollywood studio musician recording for television and motion pictures. “I’ve recorded on at least 1100 scores,” he said in a phone call on Monday. Enough for them to become a blur; he couldn’t recall which film he’d just come back from when he made the call.
But his credits include "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "As Good as it Gets" and Miklos Rozsa’s last film score, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”
He recalls two other gigs in particular. “E.T.,” because it was his first big job in America. And “Titanic,” which he didn’t actually complete. “I was down for it when Paul Rosenthal needed a cellist in Sitka. I figured this is my chance to go to Alaska. I’ve never regretted it.”
His list of musical adventures in Alaska has included performances on Mendenhall Glacier and as the guest soloist with the Hiland Mountain Women’s Prison orchestra.
But one other movie deserves mention. In “True Lies” he not only plays, but acts, making him surely the only person who has both played classical music with Jascha Heifetz and been shot in the head in an Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick.
Ksajikian was playing at the Hollywood Bowl when a casting agent saw him and decided he looked like a terrorist. He was cast and dispatched in a small role in the 1994 spy thriller "True Lies," which also starred Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold and Charlton Heston.
According to his listing on the Internet Movie Database, "In what is perhaps a first in motion picture history, (Ksajikian was also) hired to play in the orchestra for the sound track, and accompanies his own on-screen death with a poignant cello solo."
For the bears, he said, he began with some snippets of Bach and a little tuning and improvisation, mimicking birds and such. "They didn't seem to notice," he said. So he switched to the lowest notes, using his bottom C as a drone and making growly augmented and diminished chords.
"THAT goe their attention," he said. One bruin climbed to the top of a tall stump, balancing on one foot stretching toward the cellist and opening its mouth "as if trying to communicate" before getting nervous and backing off.
Ksajikian said that he was most concerned about dropping his $30,000 cello bow (yeah, that's the crowd he runs with), so he tied a string to it and looped the other end around his wrist.
The mini-recital tossed in a bit of Hector Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" and a barcarolle. (Bar - carolle... get it?)
One other yarn to report, while getting his morning coffee at Sitka’s Larkspur café during this month’s Sitka Festival, someone put a glass jar with a couple of bills in it behind him. “When I turned around it was full of ones. People are going to think I was performing at the Sitka male strip club!” he said.