Ohanessian was piano prodigy of Iraq, world

  • Article by: BEN COHEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 2, 2008 - 7:24 PM

The 81-year-old Edina resident was Iraq's premier classical pianist before becoming a U.S. citizen.

Beatrice Ohanessian of Edina, the premier classical pianist in Iraq for decades who later taught piano at Twin Cities colleges, died of cancer on July 17 in Bloomington.

She was 81.

Ohanessian became a star pupil at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, beginning in the late 1930s. By the age of 12, she was performing weekly on Iraq's national radio station.

During the 1940s, she earned degrees at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and at the Juilliard School in New York, making her debut at the old Carnegie Recital Hall in New York.

"My dream was just to go on and on, however much I could do in piano," she told Minnesota Public Radio in January 2004.

In the 1960s, she played concerts in European capitals.

She first visited the Twin Cities in the 1950s, not long after her brother, Ashram Ohanessian, a Minneapolis businessman, had immigrated to Minnesota.

In 1959, she performed at the Lake Harriet Bandshell, eventually moving to Minneapolis in 1969, and staying until 1972, teaching piano at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College in St. Paul.

She next lived in Switzerland for a few years, playing concerts and teaching, but family drew her back to Iraq.

She moved permanently to the Twin Cities in 1994, again teaching at the two colleges, plus the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

"She was a very fine human being and a fine musician," said Donald Betts of Afton, retired chairman of Macalester's music and piano departments. "She did an incredible job of teaching."

Betts recalled a recital she played at Macalester in the late 1970s, performing a sonata by an Armenian composer, and another by Chopin.

"She had a romantic style, and she was tuned into Armenian composers" and other Romantic composers, said Betts. "She played quite beautifully."

Holly Windle of Minneapolis, former education director of the Schubert Club in St. Paul, said, "She was torn" between the wider world, where Western classical music was prevalent, and her native Iraq, where her parents lived.

"She loved all kinds of music," said Windle, who is writing a book about Ohanessian's life, produced by the Schubert Club. She was a "sponge for music."

After she came to the attention of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi officials asked what reward she would like.

"How about a better piano?" she responded.

During the bombing of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, she played piano while another hid beneath it.

"She said: 'There's no point in just cowering. Let's have some music,' " Windle said.

In 2004, she recalled that she and her friends had heard a few things about Saddam Hussein's regime, but didn't know all that he did to prisoners.

"We'd say it's best to just continue in our work and not meddle in politics," she said.

Because of her status as a musical ambassador for the nation, she easily could travel, coming to the United States in 1994.

She became a U.S. citizen in 2002.

She performed at the Schubert Club, University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and at her church, St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, where she was the choir director.

Her brother Arsham died in 2005.

She is survived by her sister, Sita of the Twin Cities.

Services have been held.

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