An exciting Kazakh-American musical collaboration – and the story behind it30 november 2011, 12:45
Three years ago an accomplished young Kazakh singer living in Los Angeles convinced an American composer to set the words of Kazakh poets to music.
The result, the “Silent Steppe Cantata,” will debut at the Pyramid of Peace in Astana on December 10. Part of celebrations marking Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence, it promises to be a stirring performance.
The Kazakh singer is 29-year-old tenor Timur Bekbosunov, who has lived in the United States for 12 years, obtaining a university degree, taking voice lessons and performing.
Timur Bekbosunov, the charismatic tenor
The composer is Anne LeBaron, a faculty member of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where Timur obtained his degree.
Both Kazakhstan and the United States are so thrilled about the cantata that a number of big names have signed on as sponsors. And award-winning film maker Sandra Powers of Los Angeles, who is an animatics editor for the Nickelodean television channel, is making a documentary called “The Nomad’s Song” about the musical production.
Kazakh sponsors of the cantata include the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund; the City of Astana Department of Culture; the Kazakh Embassy in Washington and its ambassador, Erlan Idrissov; the Rixos Hotels in Almaty and Astana; and the mobile-phone service provider KCell.
American sponsors include the U.S. Embassy in Astana, the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs, the California Institute of the Arts, the international artist-exchange organization CEC ArtsLink, the Puffin Foundation, the Art of Opera Foundation and the Center for Cultural Innovation.
The composer Anne LeBaron was so determined to give the right feel to a Kazakh-rooted score that she visited Almaty several times to hear musicians play a long list of traditional instruments such as the dombra.
She will be at the Astana performance and at a reception for the cast and sponsors that the U.S. Embassy is holding in honor of Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence.
The traditional instruments she studied will be part of the performance, whose other elements include Bekbosunov as lead singer, the 30-piece Astana Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, and the 15-person philharmonic women’s choir. Erzhan Dautov will conduct the orchestra.
Timur Bekbosunov with Kazakh folk instruments orchestra
The cantata, which includes hip hop elements to appeal a younger audience, will be in three parts. The first part will be the history of the nomads, which Timur said will include “love motifs.”
The second will be the Stalinist repression of the 1930s during which an estimated 1.2 million Kazakhs died. And the third will be an upbeat look at Kazakhstan’s future.
Underscoring the international collaboration behind the performance, the hour-long cantata will be sung in Kazakh, Russian and English.
Demand for the free tickets to the show has been so strong that almost all of the 1,600 seats were snapped up weeks ago. A limited number may still be available at the Astana Philharmonic box office.
Timur’s career as a performer began as a radio journalist when he was still in high school in his native Almaty. He did interviews for Radio NS, Kazakhstan’s first commercial station, and Kazakhstan Public Radio.
“They liked young people interviewing young people,” said Timur, who looks Russian but actually is of mixed Russian and Kazakh parentage.
After obtaining his diploma in 1999, Timur headed for Wichita State University in Kansas to study English.
Although he’d considered a radio career, he decided to study voice instead.
Four years after arriving in the United States, Timur won a scholarship to the prestigious New England Conservatory in Boston. “I love Boston – you meet so many amazing people there,” he said, but “Los Angeles is now like my second home.”
He moved to Los Angeles, which he said has a “thriving arts scence,” to study voice and film directing at the University of Southern California. He left USC for the California Institute of the Arts, first as a musician in residence and then to obtain his degree.
While studying voice in Wichita, Boston and Los Angeles, Timur performed and began organizing musical productions.
In Wichita he became fired up about Italian composer Gian-Carlo Menotti , who wrote the first opera for television, “Amal and the Night Visitors.” Timur’s participation in a musical festival in Italy further stoked his enthusiasm, and he returned to Wichita to organize a festival of Menotti’s music.
In Boston, Timur was a member of the chorus in the American Repertory Theater’s production of “Oedipus.”
In the Los Angeles area, he has sung with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Interspersed with his American performances have been a number of performances in Europe.
Although he initially intended to sing traditional classical works, Timur said that over time he “felt a strong pull to contemporary classical composers.”
One of the contemporary-classical composers he admired was LeBaron, whose opera “Wet” he watched at the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s Redcat Theater in Los Angeles. He was so taken with her talent that he made a point of meeting her after the show.
In fact, he said, “she was the final factor” in his decision to obtain a degree at what is fondly known as Cal Arts, which Timur calls a “very experimental music school.”
LeBaron, who is originally from an American city with a great musical tradition – New Orleans -- is an incredible harp performer and improviser, Timur said.
“She’s on the board of the World Harp Congress,” and her music has been performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Lincoln Center in Washington, he said.
Timur described LeBaron’s music as “very rhythmic, Stravinsky-like” -- a reference to the 20th Century Russian-born, American-naturalized composer Igor Stravinsky.
Timur was thrilled when LeBaron accepted his proposal to compose a cantata.
“Here’s this rare occasion where an American composer interprets what Kazakhstan is from her own perspective – from the point of view of an outsider,” he said.
“’The Silent Steppe Cantata’ is a bold artistic initiative, and will undoubtedly nurture new relationships among diverse cultures in the world while strengthening and enhancing artistic exchanges between the United States and the Republic of Kazakhstan,” said Steven D. Lavine, president of the California Institute of the Arts.
Because some of LeBaron’s music in the cantata falls into a high range, Timor said he will sing in falsetto as well as his usual tenor during the performance.
He said some ethnic Russians asked him to eliminate the Stalinist-repression part of the cantata.
A prominent professor in Almaty told him: “Without Stalin, we wouldn’t have this opera hall and many other arts facilities.”
If she had known what Timur’s family had endured during the repression, she might have saved her breath.
The young man had Russian and Kazakh grandparents. His Kazakh grandfather Kurtabai and Kurtabai’s brother endured a bleak life in an orphanage after their parents starved during Stalin’s forced collectivization of Kazakhstan agriculture.
But the cantata moves from that dark chapter of Kazakhstan’s history to an upbeat climax, Timur said.
In fact, the final act casts a warm aura of hope, he said.
“One of the last lines is: ‘Soar young saiga (antelope) of the sky; what will you bring to life?” Timur said.
Traditional instruments that figure in to the cantata
Composer Anne LeBaron scored her work for these Kazakh instruments:
Adyrna, Dombra, Dombra Prima, Kobys, Kil-Kobys, Shan Kobys, Saz-Syrnay, Sherter, Sybyzgy, Zhetige
Kazakh poets whose work was used in the ‘Silent Steppe Cantata’
Zhuban Moldagaliev, "Men Kazakhpyn" (I Am a Kazakh), 1920-1987.
Ilyas Zhansugurov, "Dombra,” 1894-1938.
Abai Kunanbaev, "Zhazgytyry"(Almost Summer), 1845-1904.
Kalizhan Beghozhin, "I Was Born,” 1913-1990.
Unknown poet, "Wife's Dzoqtau About the Death of Amangeldy.”
Magzhan Zhumabaev, "Sui Zhan, Seulem" (Kiss Me), 1893–1938.
Olzhas Suleimenov, "Noch v Pustyne" (Night in the Desert), 1936-present.
Timur Bekbosunov and Anne LeBaron created the lyrics to other songs in the cantata.
Links to the cantata and its creators
Web site of the project, www.thesilentsteppe.org.
Project organizer and lead singer Timur Bekbosunov, www.theoperaoftimur.com.
Composer Anne LeBaron, www.annelebaron.com.
Documentary film producer Sandra Powers, www.sandrapowers.com.
Performance venue changed