George Mgrdichian, 71, Virtuoso Oud Player

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The New York Sun

George Mgrdichian, who died Sunday at 71, was a virtuosic oud player who was the first to bring the lute-like antique instrument out of the belly dancing clubs and into classical music venues like Carnegie Hall.

An early exemplar of what would one day be called world music, Mgrdichian was as comfortable playing a shalako – bubbly Armenian music to accompany a solo male dancer – as he was playing Bach. In the late 1970s, he even contemplated adapting the score of the hit movie “Star Wars” for the instrument.

“The oud can do anything,” he told a reporter for the New York Times in 1977.

But it was Mgrdichian whose virtuosity most impressed those who saw him as a young performer at Harout’s, a restaurant on the fringes of the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s.

Mgrdichian (pronounced mog-ra-DEECH-ian) grew up in Philadelphia, the son of Armenian immigrants active in their native culture. He came to love the oud as well as the clarinet by attending traditional folk dances at Armenian churches. Initially trained in clarinet, he taught himself the oud. He initially found work in small bands that played at the Casbah nightclub area of the West 20s, but gradually began to find work at downtown places like Harout’s. Later, he would jam with downtown figures like Bob Dylan, as well as Ravi Shankar and Dave Brubeck; he was anything but a purist.

Mgrdichian earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Juilliard, and in 1967 made his New York City recital debut at Town Hall. This led to an invitation to perform with the New York Philharmonic, apparently the first time the oud ever shared a stage with a symphony orchestra.

Yet it was the symphony orchestra that was the upstart in the mix. The oud – an 11-string, pear-shaped instrument that resembles a large fretless lute and sounds something like a bouzouki – has a history going back perhaps 2,000 years or more. Mgrdichian liked to educate his audiences with a little lecture on the instrument’s history, from the Persian “barbet” through its adoption by the Arabs in Spain. In recent years, Mgrdichian collaborated and toured extensively with flamenco guitarist Dennis Koster.

Mgrdichian performed at Alice Tully Hall, Wolf Trap, the Kennedy Center, and other major venues in America and abroad. He appeared on dozens of recordings, including many with David Amram and the Waverly Consort, as well as his own and his own ensemble on “One Man’s Passion” (1990).

He wrote and performed the music for “Nine Armenians,” presented at City Center and Manhattan Theatre Club in 1996.

Mgrdichian told interviewers that he preferred to play for concert audiences than for belly dancers “because the cabaret patrons just want to be excited, while concert audiences want to be elevated.” But he could be convinced to play for dances, too.

“Arabs and Jews used to go dance to his music together at the Armenian church,” an old friend and promoter who booked Mgrdichian into Carnegie Hall, Erwin Frankel, said.

George Mgrdichian

Born January 28, 1935, in Philadelphia; died April 30 of cancer at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx; survived by a brother, Roger Mgrdichian.

The New York Sun

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