Renowned pianist, composer and conductor Jeff Manookian joins the Utah Conservatory faculty
Jeff Manookian looks forward to a new musical chapter in his life.
The internationally renowned concert pianist, composer and conductor is the new chair of the piano and composition programs at the Utah Conservatory.
Manookian replaces Dr. Dan Harrison who retired from teaching on June 6. (See accompanying story).
“There’s a lot of trust there from the Utah Conservatory in me,” Manookian said with a laugh. “But it’s also a pleasant way to come home to Utah.”
Manookian is referring to his career in Argentina as conductor of the Tucuman Symphony Orchestra, a tenured professor of piano and chamber music at the National University and a talk-show host.
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The 13-year gig started as a week of rehearsals and a performance as conductor of the orchestra, he said.
“A good friend of mine, a pianist named Gary Barnett, had gotten back from playing piano recitals in Buenos Aires and he asked if I was interested in playing in Argentina for a few days,” Manookian said. “I said sure, and within a couple of days I was invited to conduct an orchestra in Tucuman.”
A day after the concert, the providence’s director of culture took Manookian to dinner and offered him the job as conductor.
“He said they were wrapping up a year of conductor auditions, and I was the last of the set,” Manookian said. “I told him I would do it for a year, and that one year turned into 13.”
Manookian’s intent was to retire in Argentina, but that changed several months ago.
“Being a television host made me very famous, and politically powerful, and the legislature of Tucuman province courted me to run for political office,” he said. “While I wasn’t interested, the ruling party at that time didn’t know I wasn’t interested, and the threats to my life started. So after several months of looking over my shoulder, I decided I needed to leave.”
Earlier this year, Utah Conservatory cofounder Debra Cook contacted Manookian to see if he was interested in joining the faculty.
“I met with them and substituted for a few lessons,” he said. “Debra told me Dan Harrison was retiring, and they were prepared to give me his studio and a studio of another teacher. I’ve known Dan for years. So this was a wonderful coincidence. “
The coronavirus pandemic in March put the talks on hold, until two weeks ago when Cook and the conservatory’s faculty director Aaron Mitchell met Manookian in a conference call to say they were ready to move forward.
“The thing that impressed me most about the Conservatory is the wonderful people I’ve been in contact with up there,” Manookian said. “It’s important to know that I’m going to be with a wonderful group of people.”
Manookian’s love for the piano began when he was a toddler.
“We had an old player-piano that belonged to my grandparents, and my mother says when I was old enough to walk, I was always reaching up to pound the keys all day long,” he said. “So when I was 4 she enlisted me in piano lessons with a neighbor.”
Manookian’s musical life changed when he was 13, and started piano lessons with one of the Salt Lake classical music scene’s pioneers, Gladys Gladstone Rosenberg.
Gladstone Rosenberg, who passed away in 2002, cofounded the Utah Symphony’s Salute to Youth program, now in its 61st year, with the symphony’s late founder Maurice Abravanel. The program gives young musicians the opportunity to perform professionally with the orchestra, according to Manookian.
“Gladys was an excellent teacher,” he said. “I was with her longer than any of her other students, which may have been because I needed it more.”
After winning international piano contests from the time he was 14, and conducting orchestras since he was 16, Manookian earned a master’s degree in piano pedagogy from Brigham Young University, and has performed around the world in Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, Mexico and the United States.
In addition, his compositions have been performed by Utah Symphony, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and in orchestras in Russia, China and Poland.
“It’s funny to me because I thought it was normal to win competitions and travel around the country to perform,” he said with a laugh.
That perspective helps him while teaching younger students.
“I remember being that age, so I know what young people are capable of,” he said. “I’m looking forward to doing my best to contribute to the conservatory’s program, being part of the conservatory family and making a dent in my students’ piano playing.”
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