When guitarist Sako Dermenjian spoke to Limelight in 2017, he was in his first year at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying with Vladimir Gorbach, having come to Australia as a refugee from Syria. Judging by the CV he’s racked up in just a couple of years, he hasn’t been wasting any time. “It’s been a busy period, to say the least,” he tells Limelight.

Anna Da Silva Chen and Sako DermenjianAnna Da Silva Chen and Sako Dermenjian. Photo supplied

Dermenjian has been hitting the competitions, taking out First Place in the Open Guitar section at the Sydney Eisteddfod last year, making the finals in the NSW Doctor’s Association Instrumental Scholarship this year, and in October he competes as a state finalist in the 2019 Fine Music Young Virtuoso of the Year Award.

Away from the classical side of things, I’ve been forming new duos with popular artists like Masha Mnjoyan (winner of The Voice of Armenia in 2013) and exploring my Middle-Eastern musical roots with Atif Badria (an Arabic percussionist) and many more in different settings,” he says. “I’ve also been playing in my band The Groove at folk music festivals such at the Perisher Peak Festival and the Illawarra Folk Festival – and all at the same time meeting and playing with some fantastic people.”

Dermenjian also took out first place in the open age Instrumental Duets section at this year’s Sydney Eisteddfod, alongside star violinist Anna Da Silva Chen, whom he met through the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Chamber Music program. “One of my favourite composers is Astor Piazzolla and I was keen to work with a virtuoso of her calibre on this repertoire,” he says. “I remember the first time we rehearsed, we clicked straight away. We were getting really excited about the result we were getting. We eventually worked with our amazing teacher Vladimir at the Conservatorium and put together a really enjoyable recital that we both loved playing.”

“It was very exciting for us to win that section especially since Piazzolla is not so often played for these kinds of competitions,” Dermenjian says. “His music is usually considered as ‘not serious enough’ and one of our goals with this project was to challenge that idea and bring to light the imagination and cleverness of his works.”

The pair, who will be performing their winning Piazzolla at concerts at the Sydney Conservatorium and in Wollongong at the end of the month, speak highly of each other as players. “Anna is an incredible virtuoso. It’s such a privilege to play with her,” Dermenjian says. “She often plays the great violin concerto repertoire which requires such skill and focus on a concert stage with an orchestra, so it is amazing that she likes to play Piazzolla’s tangos in this completely different setting.”

“Sako has a very strong presence onstage,” Chen says. “He is especially passionate about Piazzolla’s music and is never afraid of taking risks in our live performances – it makes the experience very enjoyable and spontaneous as a result. Since working with Sako I have become more open to different ideas of phrasing and tempi, and more free in the way I use my technique to evoke certain feelings and ideas.”

It’s obvious that their rehearsals have a lively dynamic. “We get on like a house on fire,” Dermenjian says. “We have so much fun with this repertoire. Often we’ll be in fits of laughter after one of us tries out a whacky idea, or takes too ambitious a tempo.”

“It’s lucky we started playing together this year as it is very difficult to find yourself in a duo or chamber group where everyone is equally committed and giving each other the same amounts of energy,” Chen says. “Though we have different musical backgrounds we are both very instinctual in deciding how to make sense of a phrase and always concerned with staying true to the composer’s intentions.”

That equal commitment is vital in any chamber ensemble, which has to balance artistic work with the administrative side of things. “Sometimes we’ll have a four-hour rehearsal, then we’ll chat for an hour after about everything from our ideas about music and our favourite artists, to how we’re going with venue bookings,” Dermenjian says. “We can’t wait to finally perform all the music we’ve prepared so diligently in the comfort of our own University’s concert hall in Sydney. We’ve played a few concerts together already so it will be fantastic for us to wrap it all up in these venues. We’re especially looking forward to taking our program to our mutual hometown, Wollongong, the day before Anna leaves for postgraduate study in Germany!”

The duo will perform two Spanish Dances by Granados, music by Paganini and Astor Piazzolla’s famous Histoire du Tango. “We both love these composers for different reasons,” Dermenjian says. “Whilst we have a mutual appreciation for the Granados, we clearly show our individual tastes later in the program. The Cantabile has always been a favourite violin work of Anna’s as it showcases the more sweet and heart-warming melodies of Paganini, while the Piazzolla is a favourite of mine, particularly due to my love of playing in bars, clubs and other relaxed settings – though not bordellos where Piazzolla’s tango originally appeared!”

Sako Dermenjian and Anna Da Silva Chen perform at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on September 27 and Wesley Uniting Church on the Mall, Wollongong, on September 28