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Kazakhstan's City of Music

A brief but exotic musical journey in Central Asia

Dear Reader,

Almaty.Spring has eased imperceptibly into summer and Almaty, Kazakhstan (photo right), is a city of extraordinary beauty. Deciduous trees, countless numbers of them, flank every street at the city's heart and through its suburbs. Their upper branches form endless leafy canopies. To the south the great Tien Shan mountains are an inspiring backdrop with their dazzling Baskin-Robbins mantle of snow.

This is a city of music - Kazakh instruments are heard on holidays and at social gatherings. Indeed, they're a vital component of ceremonies, rituals and feasts. Concert halls and learning institutes are seldom silent, and gifted children perform near miracles at the former Soviet music schools; now more outward looking than ever before, as I later discover. I was formally invited to Kazakhstan by the Kazakh State Philharmonic Orchestra management. Before leaving New Zealand I had expressed a wish to visit the principal music schools during my visit.

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan seems less than inviting upon arrival at Almaty's wretched, ill-organised, unwelcoming, and fortunately soon-to-be-replaced airport. I have flown from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines into the Central Asian night, high above lands once frequented by traders and nomads, by adventurers and warriors, by Tamburlaine and Ghengis Khan. It's 3.00 A.M. and pouring rain. After immigration clearance, passengers are compelled to trudge through darkness and puddles to meet waiting relatives or friends. I see no one. I feel bedraggled and dispirited. But then, at last, a smiling face, a car, and warmth. Concert cellist Askar Buribayev introduces himself - in English - and things start to come up roses.

The warmth, energy, and 'can do' welcome from my retinue of Kazakh hosts is at once apparent and this first night I have my own neat, spotless, well-appointed sixth-floor Almaty apartment, reached - as is typically the case - via forbidding, ill-lit stairwells, crumbling steps, and flush, heavily locked double doors. That stay is temporary however. The tenant of this dwelling, an artist, is soon to return, so after two nights there I'm whisked along cratered streets by taxi - "any vehicle may be a taxi," I'm informed - to another part of town.

Marat Bisengaliev receives flowers after concert with London's Royal Philharmonic.

Performing for members of the RPO at a welcome party and banquet following the RPO/Bisengaliev concert.


I'm eager to hear and see traditional musicians. But for a start the musical community buzzes with the arrival of a Russian Tupelov 154 carrying London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and its star soloist, Kazakh-born and trained violin virtuoso, Marat Bisengaliev, now resident in England. Next day the violinist and orchestra spokespersons meet a crush of reporters, TV cameramen, British press, and supporters. Invited Leeds-based artist Alan Flood brings striking visual studies of Bisengaliev for display at the Palace of the Republic, the RPO's concert venue.

Without warning I'm spirited away to pre-concert brass section rehearsals by the Kazakh Philharmonic Orchestra in another quarter of town. Later that evening, its concert under regular conductor Tolepbergen Abdrashev features Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.1 and his Violin Concerto with an eager young Korean student soloist. "But why are all the KPO's violins - firsts and seconds - women ? I inquire. No one has a plausible explanation. Bisengaliev's 40th birthday concert, with irrepressible, prize-winning Kazakh conductor Alan Buribayev is the predominant topic for conversation. And into the evening I'm plied with "woodka," wild dried apricots, pressed horsemeat with olives, pistachios, dark ever - present Kazakh chocolate, then more "woodka".

The long-awaited concert - including Vitali's "Chaconne," Tulebayev's "Poeme," Ravel's "Tzigane," Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen," the Milstein "Paganiniana," and Elgar miniatures - confirms this artist's stature as one of the few remaining representatives of the legendary Russian tradition. His interpretative powers are irreproachable, his vibrant, wholly recognisable sound ignites the emotions, and the glittering technical elan is wildly breathtaking.

No wonder Bisengaliev is a role model for aspiring instrumentalists at the famed Almaty music schools, two of four Kazakhstan learning environments for musically gifted students aged six to 18. Inaugurated under Soviet control, each one teaches more than 400 pupils a full range of academic subjects, extended and modified since pre-1991 days. Amazingly the teacher-pupil ration is approximately one to three, and for Kazakh students the tuition is entirely free.

In full traditional dress, members of a regional orchestra play Western and Kazakh instruments, with the cobyz section in front.

For almost 15 years the schools have taught in both Kazakh (Turkic) and Russian (Slavic) and from age seven pupils must also study either English or German.

On successive days I'm welcomed at both schools; one named after Kazakh opera star Kylash Baiseitova; the other bearing the name of composer Ahmet Jubanov and largely for children from rural areas. Each school has convened round-table meetings with its principal, senior staff, and Kazakh-English teachers to greet my arrival. They tempt me repeatedly with biscuits, assorted nuts, drinks and inevitably - chocolate. Staff are eager to answer queries; to hear my impressions thus far. Children bring me a dazzling red bouquet, one of many.

During the Soviet days, pupils were required to wear severe uniforms. Today the uniforms are gone, yet corridors remain gloomy and uneven, rehearsal rooms spartan, concert theatre walls threadbare, and auditorium seats creaky.

Baiseitova and Jubanov have arranged concerts of their laureate students in my honour and successive performers reveal almost uncanny musicianship. The remarkable quality of Kazakh performance teaching seems irrefutable. During my visit, a 16-year-old girl romps fearlessly through a Ysaye Sonata, a laureate pianist brings colour and finesse to one of Debussy's Preludes, two teenage girls treat me to a Vivaldi Double Concerto adapted for two kobyz, an ancient Kazakh bowed instrument, then a violin group brings great excitement to up-beat Kazakh folk tunes.

Until 1991, the principal aim of students was to study and perform in Moscow. Now, after four years at the state (Kurmangazy) Conservatory, they set their sights on European competitions, post-graduate tuition in Britain, work with foreign orchestras including those of neighbouring Commonwealth or Independent States (CIS), or best of all, an international concert career. While a generous percentage of students study conventional string, wind or brass instruments, others seek mastery at traditional instruments; the timeless bowed kobyz, the inescapable plucked dombra (historic instrument of peasants and nomads), and even the flute-like sibizghi. Music theory is mandatory and great emphasis is also given to specialist training of piano
accompanists and conductors.

My first sample of traditional music comes after the RPO concert. Commonly traditional bands dress in fairy-tale white, plus gold and scarlet. But while the British musicians and guests sit for a celebratory meal; performers in opulent green Kazakh dress play folk melodies. Two women soloists also entertain; one with the dombra - the second on the kobyz. Most intriguing is the other-wordly shan-kobyz (very similar to a Jew's harp) with its characteristic low drone. Its male soloist breaks into 'throat singing' like that practiced in the Central Asian republic of Tuva. Origins of the dombra are shrouded in antiquity. While it's used to accompany songs or for solos, the expressive compass has been likened to that of the human voice. No wonder successive generations of poets have written words with the dombra in mind.

The kobyz is even more archaic, rich in overtones, and played like a miniature cello. Th earliest ones were hollowed out from a single block and open at the front. Their more recent descendants are closed in at the front, though those of today are played in much the same fashion. Motoring east, beside the road to China, villagers are selling eggs and vegetables, nan-like bread comes hot from a roadside oven, fruit and nuts and nuts are brought in from burgeoning dacha gardens, and by the shade of the unending corridor of trees, car and lorry drivers fumee over burst tyres and overheating radiators. Beyond Issyk, Kazakhstan's famous kurgan (burial mound), the Tien Shan mountains glisten and shimmer as a biting breeze lifts and scatters their recent sequined snows. To the north, Almaty's 100,000 trees sigh and whisper before the same wind. Even now, all across the nearby city, young Kazakh musicians are working at their scales, arpeggios, and etudes.

Best regards,

Howard Smith.

© Howard Smith, Page 45, STRINGS (Volume XVII, Number 4 - Issue 106), Nov./Dec. 2002.