|Gulzhan Mustakhim and Ruslan Baimurzin|
If the Republic of Kazakhstan exported the artists of their Astana Opera on an international tour to raise awareness of their progressive nation, they certainly succeeded. So entranced were we by their program at Carnegie Hall that we have spent the remainder of the night reading about the country online.
They are the ninth largest country in the world and the largest landlocked country. They declared their independence from the dissolving USSR in 1991 and moved their capitol to Astana in 1998. Their population is nearly 18 million people with Islamic Kazakhs outnumbering Russian Orthodox folk by about 3 to 1. Religious freedom and democracy are practiced and there are many other ethnic groups and religions also represented.
What is important to us music lovers is the fact that the country supports musical education and performance. A fabulous new opera house holding 1250 people was built and Ildar Abdrazakov sang the lead in Verdi's Attila for the opening, with Maestro Valery Gergiev (Principal Guest Conductor) on the podium. The orchestra is a young one with most members between 25 and 30 years of age.
Now how does all this translate into last night's performance? The program bridged East and West, traditional and modern. What we most appreciated was the opportunity to hear their traditional native music. Depicted above are two instrumentalists in exotic native costume-- Ms. Mustakhim making some gorgeous sounds on the kobyz, which appeared to have but two strings played with a bow and Mr. Baimurzin plucking the two strings of the dombrya. They played Tugan zher, which means Motherland.
The exceptional chorus delighted us with a medley of folk songs, conducted by Erzhan Dautov. Two exotically costumed singers performed a spirited duet from Birzhan and Sara by M. Tolebaev (about whom we can learn nothing, except that he was a "People's Artist" worthy of a bronze monument); soprano Aigul Niyazova and tenor Medet Chotabayev were accompanied by the enormous symphony orchestra, conducted by Abzal Mukhitdinov.
The orchestra opened the program with a scherzo entitled Celebration by Rakhmadiev in which we could hear the hooves of galloping horses. They also performed a work by Zhubanov-Khamidi along with that wonderful choir.
Although we yearned to hear more of the native music, the European part of the program was also satisfying. Dramatic soprano Zhupar Gabdullina sang "Santo di patria" from Verdi's Attila with ringing high notes and a fearless attack of the fioritura. Baritone Sundet Baygozhin performed "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia; he was expecially good with the tongue-twistingly rapid verse.
The barcarolle "Belle Nuit" from Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffman was sung in thrilling harmony by soprano Aigul Niyazova and mezzo Dina Khamzina. Soprano Alfiya Karimova performed Bernstein's "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide with a convincing sense of drama and impressive coloratura. She sang in British English which seemed a bit strange.
Violinist Erzhan Kulibaev did a fine job with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major; we especially enjoyed hearing his solo cadenzas with their runs, arpeggios and trills.
But, for us, the highlight of the evening was a stirring performance of Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor. Instead of the field of red flowers at The Metropolitan Opera, we had a stage full of singers in red. There was such depth in the choral singing that we were strangely moved almost to tears. The evening ended with much beating of drums and clashing of cymbals.
We have had only a taste of the music of Kazakhstan but our appetite is whetted for more. Clearly the progressive intentions of this ancient culture emerging as a modern nature is reflected in the cultural diversity of their musical programming. No wonder the opening work was entitled "Celebration"!
(c) meche kroop