Asheville to Armenia! A Musical Adventure in Support of UN World Refugee Day

by Bill Kopp,

Kate Steinbeck (née Haemmel) and Satik Andriassian first met as students at Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory near Cleveland, Ohio. Satik is an Armenian born in Iran and moved to the United States in 1976. A gifted musician, her primary instrument was (and remains) classical guitar.

Kate was already an accomplished flutist. The two became good friends during those college years. In the decades following their time at the conservatory, both women would be consumed with family and career: Kate eventually moved to Asheville and founded Pan Harmonia, and today Satik is a professor and the director of the Classical Guitar Ensemble at Cal State University in Los Angeles.

“We lost contact for years,” Kate says, “but we remained in each other’s awareness.” Happily, in 2012, they re-established contact and connected when they could. “The last time we saw each other was just before the shutdown in March 2020,” Kate recalls. The two would often share stories about their musical pursuits. Kate vividly remembers Satik telling her about a trip with her guitar ensemble. “In 2018, they toured Rome, Sicily and Malta; that’s pretty ambitious!”

Travel was largely out of the question during the lockdowns of 2020-22, but once things began to open back up, Satik approached her students with the idea of another ambitious concert tour and asked them if they would like to put together a tour of Italy. She also floated another possibility: the country of her heritage, Armenia. The students immediately, enthusiastically and unanimously chose the more challenging and intriguing option; Armenia it would be.

Satik contacted the head of the United Nations Relief Agency in Armenia; the agency would bring the ensemble to various refugee communities around the country. Those communities are temporary homes for Iraqi, Syrian and Ukraine refugees; the ensemble will bring a musical message of hope and togetherness to audiences there. The itinerary for the June tour – in commemoration and observance of UN World Refugee Day, June 20 – will also include two concerts in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. In addition, there will be a concert in Oshakan, the birthplace of Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet. The ensemble will also have other concerts in Gyumri and Dilijan (known as the “Armenian Switzerland”).

While the group is based in California, the ten-person guitar ensemble is a human display of diversity. Ranging in ages from 25 to 50, the gender-diverse students represent at least nine different cultures; that variety will be empowering and affirming for an audience of refugees in a country where ethnic Armenians make up more than 98% of the population.

In recent years, Satik and Kate have often spoken about the prospect of playing music together. Kate had even suggested a piece, “Facades” by minimalist composer Phillip Glass. “We talked about me coming out and playing with her ensemble,” Kate says, “but it didn’t happen.”

Satik did eventually produce a performance of “Facades.” And as soon as the decision had been made to organize a tour of Armenia, she rang up her dear friend. “I want you to come on tour with us,” she told Kate. “I want you to play ‘Facades’ and some other works, but because of our shoestring budget I can’t compensate you.”

Satik explained her reasons for wanting Kate to participate. “You are one of the most compassionate people I know for [connecting with] humanity and human well-being. I would like you to experience what we will experience with the refugee communities, because I know you will build on that experience.”

A tour of the scale that Satik has planned requires significant funding. So far, she has raised more than half of the required funds for the students’ needs. But as much as Satik wants Kate to join the ensemble for the tour, she isn’t able to cover the flutist’s expenses.

To that end, Kate will play benefits concerts with a goal of raising about $6000 to make possible her participation in the Armenian Adventure. She has raised about 2/3 of the required funds. (The next benefit concert will be “Just Flute” on April 16 in Asheville.)

And as Kate says, the goals of the tour flow in two directions. “The goal is sharing music, of course. The musicians will have an experience in another culture, playing and connecting with the audiences,” she explains. “And the audiences will experience both the music and the diversity of these American musicians.”

The program for the Armenian Adventure concerts will have the Americas – North and South – as its theme. The works of 20th century Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos will be featured. “He wrote a piece for multiple cellos and soprano,” Kate says. Satik is transcribing that work for guitars and flute. Kate hopes to feature a piece for solo flute by American composer Katherine Hoover as well. And of course, the piece that inspired Satik’s invitation to her dear friend, Glass’ “Facades,” will also be part of the program.

Kate says that for her, the Armenia Adventure represents an opportunity “to get wonderfully out of my comfort zone. Touring is always an adventure, but visiting Armenia – witnessing Satik’s culture – will really shake up my consciousness.” And, she admits, the trip offers the rare chance to spend two weeks with her dear friend.

Satik and Kate in Ohio, c. 1983