America and Kazakhstan’s ‘Silent Steppe Cantata’ was entertaining and inspiring28 december 2011, 17:14
One of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a long time was attending the recent performance of the “Silent Steppe Cantata” at Congress Hall.
The three-part operetta about Kazakhstan’s nomad past, 1930s repression era and future prospects was captivating and classy.
As an American who loves Kazakhstan, I was particularly happy that the U.S. Embassy played a lead role in sponsoring the event.
One of my most vivid impressions of the performance was the enchantment on the faces of the 30 Kazakhs who played the traditional instruments in the Astana Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.
The smiles they flashed as they walked on stage, played their instruments and took their bows at the end were rapturous, reflecting the heartfelt joy they felt at being part of something special.
Another lasting impression is how perfectly composer Anne LeBaron’s score evoked the spirit of the traditional instruments the orchestra played.
Anne, a professor at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, is a renowned harp player and composer, so I had expected a wonderful score from her. But she went out of her way to ensure that the score would do the best possible job of demonstrating the merits of the dombra, kobys and other traditional instruments.
The cantata involved putting the words of several top Kazakh poets to music.
Anne visited Almaty twice before writing the score so she could listen carefully to a couple of dozen classical instruments. That determination to get it right was a mark of a professional who not only was striving for perfection but who also wanted her work to capture the soul of another culture’s musical tradition.
I’ve heard traditional instruments playing classical Kazakh tunes. And I’ve seen performers like the contemporary Kazakh folk band Ulytau use them in up-tempo folksy and jazzy pieces.
But I’ve never seen traditional Kazakh instruments used in modern, Western-style contemporary classical music. Anne’s ability to write a score that could showcase the best qualities of the instruments was a key to the cantata's success.
I particularly enjoyed the sonorous sounds of the orchestra’s lead kobys player, whom Anne gave some solo moments.
In addition to Anne’s score, a major part of the performance’s success was the flawless tenor of singer Timur Bekbosunov,who came up with the idea of the show three years ago, then spent a lot of energy seeing it through.
Timur not only has a great voice, but also a charismatic stage presence.
When he sang numbers about Josef Stalin’s repression of Kazakhstan during the 1930s, his brow furrowed and his face assumed a look of profound sadness. For a moment he became one of those whom Kazakhs know as the Repressed.
An Almaty native, Timur has honed his musical and impresario skills for 12 years in the United States.
He’s still only 29, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him achieve stardom in coming years. He has the musical talent that’s necessary, plus a terrific way with people.
Anne told me after the performance that she was taken with Timur as soon as she met him – so when he proposed the cantata project to her, she quickly accepted.
He ended up getting his degree from the university where she was teaching, affectionately known as Cal Arts.
“He is a remarkable young man,” Anne said. “And so sincere.”
A review of the “Silent Steppe Cantata” wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the superb conducting of Erzhan Dautov, maestro of the Astana Philharmonic, and the 15-person philharmonic women’s choir.
Dautov kept the ensemble’s disparate parts moving smoothly.
And the women’s choir offered a sweetness and depth that reminded me of a choir singing George Fridrich Handel’s “Messiah.”
The cantata was taped, so if you missed it, you may get a chance to see it online. If I learn what the link is, I’ll pass it on to you.
And a final note: A talented young film maker from California, Sandra Powers, is doing a documentary film on the cantata project. In fact, portions of it were shown just before the cantata performance.
Once the film is complete, I’ll let you know where you can see it.
From left, Diana Petrova, a student at the Kazakhstan Russian University, joins cantata composer Anne LeBaron, Tengrinews.kz English columnist Hal Foster, singer Timur Bekbosunov and documentary film maker Sandra Powers after the concert. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy, Astana