Astana Opera Conductor Alan Buribayev’s bond with Kazakhstan’s signature opera, “Abai”

29 августа 2015, 15:41

In 1944 the composers Akhmet Zhubanov and Latif Khamidi mesmerized audiences with the premiere of what was hailed as the masterpiece of Kazakhstani opera.

The show, “Abai,” is about Kazakhstan’s most revered philosopher and poet, Abai Kunanbayev, who lived in the last half of the 19th Century. The story involves Abai helping his student and the student’s fiancee overcome difficult circumstances to marry, only to have their love end tragically when a rival poisons the husband.

Kazakhs adore the opera as much as they do Abai himself, but international audiences were unaware of the outstanding work until recently.

That’s when Zhubanov’s great-grandson Alan Buribayev decided to make it a mission to help introduce “Abai” to the world.

Alan became the principal conductor of the Astana Opera a few months ago. Although just 36, he’s held the permanent position of principal conductor for three European orchestras and been a guest conductor for dozens of orchestras in Europe, North America, Japan and elsewhere.

Alan, whose musical journey began as a 7-year-old violin player, is of course steeped in the works of the great European and Russian composers.

Alan Buribayev, the conductor of the Astana Opera, has directed orchestra performances around the world. Photo by Karla Nur, copyright Astana Opera, 2015.

While Alan acknowledges their magnificence, “Abai” – which he considers to be one of the greatest musical works ever written – is closer to his heart.

The opera “raises topics that are interesting to anyone regardless of their nationality and the music is so passionate and beautiful,” he said. He always believed that if non-Kazakh audiences got a chance to see it, they would embrace it, too.

He put that theory to the test at the opera’s European debut in 2012. People from all over Germany came to the performance he conducted at the State Opera House of South Thuringia in Meiningen.

He was delighted, he said, that “there were no empty seats in the theater hall, and theater critics found the opera to be vivid and brilliant.”

Alan is a fourth-generation musician. His great-grandfather, great-aunt and parents have played, conducted or composed music – or engaged in a combination of such pursuits.

Great-grandfather Akhmet Zhubanov was a man of immense accomplishment.

The composer and conductor was the first head of the Kazakh National Conservatory in Almaty and started the Kurmangazy National Folk Instruments Orchestra, whose members play traditional Kazakh instruments.

Alan Buribayev makes a point with an orchestra member. Photo by Karla Nur, copyright Astana Opera, 2015.

His books “The Strings of the Centuries” and “The Nightingales of the Centuries” illuminated “the lives and art of many great Kazakh Steppe composers of the past,” Alan said, including Kurmangazy Sagyrbayev, Dauletkerey Shigayev and Tattimbet Kazangapuly.

Akhmet also was one of the founders of Kazakhstan’s premier academic society, the National Academy of Sciences.

Another towering figure in Alan’s childhood was his great-aunt Gaziza Zhubanova, Akhmet’s daughter and a superb composer in her own right.

Alan loved going to her premieres. He remembers being so enthralled with the “wonderful music” of her ballet “Karagoz” that “I danced all the way home from the theater.”

He’s seen new dimensions of Akhmet and Gaziza’s compositions as he’s grown as a musician, he said.

He “very much regrets” they passed away so early in his life because “it would be so interesting to talk with them about their music now.”

Alan’s father Askar Buribayev is a respected cellist and conductor and his mother Sholpan Zhubanova an accomplished pianist. Both maintain active careers.

Alan grew up hearing music at home, and his family “always talked about the opera, ballets, concerts and the arts.” The musical milieu he experienced made a “deep impression” on him that led to his embarking on his own career.

His younger brother Elmar caught the fever, too. He’s now studying conducting at the Kazakh National Conservatory.

Alan said a conversation with his father led to his shifting his musical focus from playing violin to conducting.

“I remember listening on the radio to the opera ‘Tannhauser’ by one of my favorite composers, Richard Wagner,” he said.

He asked his father how he could develop the deepest possible relationship with the music of his German idol.

You can’t do it by playing violin, his father replied, because Wagner’s work doesn’t include instrument solos. The best way is to conduct it, he advised.

The first time Alan conducted was at an international conducting competition in Italy when he was 18. Although he had just begun studying conducting at the Kazakh National Conservatory, he was awarded a certificate of merit at the 1997 competition.

Astana Opera. Photo courtesy of ©

The classical music world took note when he won first places in three international competitions between 1999 and 2001 while still a student – the Lovro von Matacic Conducting Competition in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1999, the Nikolai Malko International Conducting Competition in Copenhagen and the Antonio Pedrotti International Conducting Competition in Trento, Italy.

The victories led to his career soaring at home and abroad.

He conducted the Astana Symphony Orchestra for several years, was music director of the Meiningen Theater in Germany from 2004 to 2007, then took conductor positions at the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden from 2007 to 2011 and the Brabants Orchestra in the Netherlands from 2008 to 2012.

In 2010 he became principal conductor of the Dublin-based RTE Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. The Astana Opera named him its principal conductor this year. He will continue to conduct the RTE Symphony Orchestra and to be principal guest conductor of the Japan Century Symphony Orchestra in Osaka.

He’s been a guest conductor of orchestras in London and Birmingham, England; Berlin, Stuttgart and Dresden, Germany; Tokyo, Sapporo and Sendai, Japan; Milan, Italy; Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Olso, Norway; Helsinki, Finland, St. Petersburg, Russia; and Melbourne, Australia.

He’s also conducted a production of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” at France’s Opera National de Lyon and worked with Russia’s famed Bolshoi Theater.

Although he’s at much at home overseas as in Kazakhstan these days, “I always emphasize that I am a conductor from Kazakhstan in every place I perform,” he said. And, “wherever possible, I include works of Kazakh composers” in overseas productions.

A signature moment in the artistic relationship between Alan and the Astana Opera came in November of last year, when he conducted the Astana Opera troupe performing the concert version of Verdi’s opera “Attila” at the Opera Bastille in Paris.

The Astana Opera theater of opera and ballet. ©RIA Novosti

It was the first time an international opera company had performed independently at the historic theater, without Opera Bastille’s troupe taking part. The fact that it was a Central Asian troupe that is one of the youngest opera companies in the world made it all the more remarkable.

After this successful collaboration, Alan and the Astana Opera decided to work more closely. He became principal conductor of the opera this spring.

In recent years Alan has conducted his beloved “Abai” overseas several times.

Last year he performed the full opera at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. He’s also conducted parts of it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London, the Ekaterinburg Symphony Orchestra in Russia and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin.

It will come as no surprise to those who have followed Alan’s career that the first opera he will perform at the Astana Opera House, in September of this year, will be “Abai.”

The opera house has enlisted five talented Italians to make the production world-class. The director will be Giancarlo del Monaco, the set designer Ezio Frigerio, the costume designer the Academy Award winner Franca Squarciapino, the projections designer Sergio Metalli and the lighting designer Vinicio Cheli.

Although the Astana Opera is in its infancy, “it’s making great strides toward world recognition,” Alan said. “I am thrilled to be part of the history that’s being made right before our eyes.”


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