Zaven Melikian
Zaven Melikian | Credit: Robert Messick

Former San Francisco Opera Orchestra concertmaster Zaven Melikian died on Feb. 6 in his Fairfield home. He was 94, said to be giving violin lessons until recently.

Born in Yugoslavia and of Armenian heritage, Melikian started playing the violin at age 7. He was schooled in France and performed throughout Europe and in Egypt and Lebanon before coming to the U.S.

Melikian joined the first violin section of the SF Opera Orchestra in 1957. He then served variously as concertmaster or assistant concertmaster in 1969, during the 1972–1973 season, and from 1977 through the 1993–1994 season, when current concertmaster Kay Stern succeeded him. His retirement from the orchestra was marked by an onstage ceremony, during which he received the San Francisco Opera Medal.

Melikian is said to have played a significant role in rebuilding the Opera Orchestra — working with General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, Ruth Felt, and Patricia Mitchell — when the San Francisco Symphony moved to Davies Symphony Hall in 1980. Previously, the SF Symphony, Opera, and Ballet all rehearsed and performed in the War Memorial, their orchestras sharing musicians until three separate orchestras were formed.

From 1969 to 1998, Melikian was also a professor of violin at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he “trained an extraordinary group of violinists who may be found in major orchestras and chamber groups around the world.”

Zaven Melikian and Daniel Shindaryov
Zaven Melikian with colleague Daniel Shindaryov in the SF Opera pit | Courtesy of SF Opera Archives

Bassist Shinji Eshima, who has been playing with the SF Opera Orchestra since 1980, says Melikian was on his audition committee. Eshima told SF Classical Voice:

Zaven Melikian was an iconic concertmaster who belongs in the lineage of great concertmasters, such as Joseph Silverstein, Josef Gingold, and Glenn Dicterow.

Zaven was the definitive and distinctive face of San Francisco Opera after it separated from the San Francisco Symphony in 1980, when Davies Symphony Hall was built.

Zaven was a master of so many things. He had a robust passion for life. Yes, he was a master of the violin and pedagogy but also of cuisine, fine wines, board games, golf, and gardening with his beloved wife of 60 years, Suezane. They met when she was singing in the SF Opera Chorus.

Zaven had an ear for languages. He spoke beautiful French, having lived in Paris in his youth. I often admired and appreciated how he could communicate with the variety of guest conductors we had in the opera in their native tongues. He even read Cyrillic.

He taught me so much, everything from how to efficiently eat pumpkin seeds and appreciate a glass of Clos de Bèze to how to deal with less-than-ideal conductors. 

He told hours of colorful stories of the old days playing in the SF Symphony. He was friends with [former SFS Music Director] Seiji Ozawa, who coincidentally died on the same day.”

Backgammon game
From left: William Pynchon, Zaven Melikian, David Kadarauch, Jonathan Lancelle, and Shinji Eshima around a game of backgammon | Courtesy of SF Opera Archives

Eshima continued:

Former SF Opera and Ballet principal cellist David Kadarauch and I would relish the many times we would visit Zaven at his house to play backgammon all night. We would arrive claiming we were hungry and ‘we need the cash.’

We would be served his favorite lamb, always with warmed bread, tomatoes from his garden, fine wine, and great scotch (although cheap scotch was given to David because ‘he won’t know the difference,’ Zaven would whisper to me under his breath).

Invariably, Zaven would get caught in what is termed a “back game” in backgammon, where his only chance of surviving was to throw a specific 1 and 6. This was coined the “Z roll,” as he would scream desperately for this roll of the dice.

It rarely came, and David and I would leave the evening with thicker wallets and waistlines amid wails of painful cries from Zaven, to which we would playfully mock, ‘Time to get out the violin!’”

Melikian is survived by his wife Suezane, sons Armen Melikian and Shawn Melikian, and three grandchildren.