The Van Nuys Civic Orchestra will play a concert this afternoon that includes a symphonic work born in the bitterness of Nazi Berlin and written by a composer who leads an unusual double life: hamburger cook and classical musician.
The three-movement work was composed by Ara Sevanian, proprietor and chief cook at Ara's Armenian Hamburgers, a small wooden shack on the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Oxnard Street.
Sevanian says he has written hundreds of classical compositions and has had his works performed by major orchestras around the country.
'I Lead a Double Life'
"I lead a double life, and I enjoy them both," said Sevanian, 69, who has operated the hamburger stand for 24 years to support his music.
"It is honest work, to make good food for people. Some classical musicians complain about the lack of demand for their talents. I believe in hard work."
The civic orchestra will play his symphonic sketches, which include, as the third movement, a work titled "Protest," inspired by Sevanian's encounter with prejudice in Berlin after he was captured by the German army in World War II.
Many of Sevanian's works are rooted in the folk music of his native Armenia, now split among the Soviet Union, Turkey and Iran. Sevanian served in the medical corps in the Soviet army during the war and played a command performance for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who liked his music so well that he awarded him a medal, Sevanian said.
When he was captured later in the war, the Germans mistook the medal for a military decoration "and threw me in a concentration camp," he said, where "people died like flies" of hunger and exhaustion.
'Haul You Away to Be Buried'
"If you lost consciousness, they would throw you on a wagon and haul you away to be buried. The dead, the half dead, it made no difference."
He lost consciousness one day and was being wheeled away, he said, when a fellow Armenian on the burial detail remarked to a German officer in charge that one of those the cart had been a well-known musician in their native land.
The German officer, a violinist before the war, checked to see if he was dead, Sevanian said. Finding that Sevanian was only unconscious, he told the others not to bury him.
The officer later let him eat food from the German guards' kitchen, built up his strength and got him released to play concerts in Berlin.
He and an Armenian friend were in a park one day, "reading to each other in Armenian from the short stories of the Armenian California author, William Saroyan," he said, when "suddenly people were throwing stones at us . . . saying Germans were dying in the war because of pigs (foreigners) like us, yelling, 'Get out pigs, get out.'
"My friend and I ran from the rocks. I jumped on a streetcar, and in my head I could hear this melody--my anger in music. I burned to write down this music. That became 'Protest.' "
After the war, he studied at a German conservatory and later came to the United States with the help of a California lawyer who had been a friend of the family.
To Be in Audience Today
Sevanian will be in the audience today when the work is conducted by James Domine, director of the Van Nuys Civic Orchestra.
Domine said that the last time "Protest" was performed in this area was more than 10 years ago, when Aram Khachaturian conducted it for the Los Angeles Philharmonic while the Soviet Armenian composer was on a tour of the United States.
"Khachaturian thought quite highly of it," Domine said. "He said Sevanian should write something like that every year.
"I thought it would be interesting to perform, especially since Sevanian is from Van Nuys, and we look for local talent. There are talented musicians in the Valley and people don't realize it."
The orchestra is made up mostly of people like Sevanian, Domine said, "who work at some non-musical kind of job so they have money and free time for their music." Domine is a printer.
The concert, which will begin at 2 p.m. at the Van Nuys Multi-Purpose Center at 6514 Sylmar St., is the 16th in a series of 20 by the orchestra. Admission is free.