As part of the Odysseys project through which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is trying to track immigrants from 193 countries in the United Nations, folks who made Pittsburgh their home, the paper has dedicated an article to Armenian cellist Katya Janpoladyan.
When Katya Janpoladyan says she never takes anything for granted, it is easy to believe why. At 37, the cello player from Yerevan, Armenia, knows what it is like to experience the deprivations of life in a blockaded country.
In 1988, Azerbaijan established a land blockade around Armenia because of ancient political and territorial disputes. Turkey, which shares a border as well as a tragic history with Armenia, also erected a blockade, intensifying the country’s isolation.
There is only a hint of melancholy in Ms. Janpoladyan’s voice as she recalls her youth during the blockade. She was 10 or 11 when she began to understand that her biggest passion in life was music, though she had not yet mastered an instrument.
Unlike most children facing many years of practice and self-imposed discipline, Ms. Janpoladyan had to beg her parents — both of whom are journalists — to let her take music lessons. Her Armenian father and Russian mother wanted to make sure her request wasn’t a momentary bout of enthusiasm, so they didn’t acquiesce immediately.
By the time she was 11, Ms. Janpoladyan suspected she was “too old” for piano lessons, so she started to narrow her choice of instruments. It was only when she heard a student playing a Haydn concerto under the supervision of her future music teacher that she found her life-long companion.
“This is how it started,” Ms. Janpoladyan said, recalling the moment decades later.
From that point, mastering the cello became her priority. She put in years of disciplined practice under difficult circumstances and sacrificed many of the few comforts that were available to her to pursue her dream.
“I missed my prom to get ready for an audition,” she said, “but I never regretted it.”
She remembers the multiple layers of clothing she had to wear in her unheated conservatory. But the chilly conditions under which she had to rehearse didn’t prevent her from winning awards or progressing steadily in her mastery of the cello.
During the blockade, her father was a communications officer, so he wasn’t home a lot. “It was difficult,” Ms. Janpoladyan said. “There was no heat in the house. Because my father was at work, there was no provider. My mom, brother and grandma couldn’t cut the trees [for fire wood], so we collected branches.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Janpoladyan began thinking about leaving Armenia to pursue her art and to live a life that was a little less defined by blockades and ancient conflicts.
A plan to study in St. Petersburg, Russia, fell through, but an opportunity to study with cellist Yehuda Hanani in Cincinnati opened up new possibilities.
In late 2001, Ms. Janpoladyan moved to the United States to attend the University of Cincinnati and to study with Mr. Hanani, who became her mentor and friend.
After completing her master’s degree, Ms. Janpoladyan moved to Pittsburgh in 2008. “I moved here to work with my string quartet,” she said referring to the Freya String Quartet, which formed in 2009.
The quartet recently announced it would soon disband so its members could pursue new opportunities. It specialized in the work of new composers. Ms. Janpoladyan enjoyed the challenge and the opportunity.
“We do a ton of music by new composers. Some of it is really great,” she said.
Ms. Janpoladyan is about to begin a new musical project, but doesn’t want to talk about it yet because it is in the early stages. It will be in Pittsburgh, a region that continues to inspire her creativity.
Still, Ms. Janpoladyan’s initial encounter with the region wasn’t love at first sight. “It takes time to fall in love with Pittsburgh, but I did,” she said. “I love the bridges, the cultural life … a lot is going on here.”
In what could be a first, Ms. Janpoladyan said she “even likes the rain” in Pittsburgh. Now a resident of McCandless, she teaches cello privately to 30 students.
“I like molding and bringing students to perfection,” she said. “I try to create a community with my students so that they know each other and don’t feel isolated.”
Ms. Janpoladyan has a 2-year-old daughter named Maria. Not too long ago, she took Maria to Armenia to introduce her to her family. It was a joyful reunion and she enjoyed seeing her family bond with her daughter.
Looking back on her life in Armenia and contrasting it with her life in Pittsburgh, Ms. Janpoladyan is philosophical.
“I’m glad I went through that,” she said referring to the blockade. “It taught me not to take things for granted.”
She ticked down the things she has, including her daughter, her health, food, warm clothing, a car, an income that she refuses to treat as entitlements.
“I’m a lucky person in general,” she said. “Fortune smiles on me.”