from Issue 9

Steppe 9 Cover

Last Word: Marat Bisengaliev

by Hermione Eyre

Kazakhstan’s exports include, famously, oil, gas and … classical music? Yes indeed, in the person of Marat Bisengaliev, virtuoso violinist and veteran conductor of several major orchestras

I come from a line of great west Kazakh musicians. I’m related to the composer Kurmangazy [1823–96] and his descendant, Dina Nurpeisova. My father was very gifted at playing the dombra, a stringed traditional instrument, and recorded a vinyl LP of kui music on the Melodiya label, which is my prized possession; but whereas these days you can become a star, in those days in the Soviet Union it wasn’t a proper job. He served in World War II and then he had to become breadwinner for the family, training at the Leningrad financial school and becoming head of the financial department in Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan, until for the sake of our education my father moved the family back to Almaty.

I was one of eight children. We had a reel-to-reel player – that was something! Very expensive, very exclusive. We managed to build a large collection of recordings, and I loved to listen to Jascha Heifetz. I still have an incredible vinyl recording of him playing as a teenager, and I love his interpretations of Elgar.

When I was young, I had violin classes for two, three, four hours a day, first of all with a professor and then the professor’s assistants. They were long and painful lessons, very concentrated and quite tough. Of course, all my training was paid for by the state, including my degree from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where I followed my elder brother Sagadat (who was tragically killed in a road accident in Kazakhstan at the age of 33). There were huge advantages to the Soviet regime because it wasn’t founded on commercial principles: the priority was quality. That level of training is what gives results, and it’s why the Soviets dominated the world in competitions, just like the Chinese now. In India [Marat is Artistic Director of the Symphony Orchestra of India in Mumbai] we are only beginning to develop an infrastructure for classical music – it’s a blank sheet.

At the moment, classical music in Kazakhstan is in decline because quite a large number of intelligent people left the country during the difficult years of the 1990s. Nowadays the economy has improved, but the young generation is more pop, more American. Classical music lessons last exactly sixty minutes, not more, not less and they are expensive. But the best effort comes from children who are hungry for success, and not from a rich background. I think it’s quite natural that the child who has everything doesn’t have the desire to practice all day. I practiced more than seven days a week – for an international competition I would practice for twelve hours, non-stop.

After studying under Valeri Klimov as a postgraduate and touring from Moscow through Goskonzert for a few years, I returned to Kazakhstan as a soloist with the Philharmonic. In 1990 I played one of my first concerts with Hallam Sinfonia and was spotted by the record label Naxos who immediately offered me a contract. At another early concert in Russia I met my future wife Stina Wilson; our daughter Aruhan, born in 1991, graduated from The King’s School, Canterbury. She’s gone a different way: she wants to be an actress and she has a simple jazz voice that Karl Jenkins loves. He had her in mind when he composed Shakarim and Tlep, which premiered at Royal Festival Hall and is recorded on EMI and Sony.

I have a great love for Elgar. In the late 1990s, I spent three years in Malvern researching Elgar like a proper scientist, talking to his relatives and reading his libraries, exploring the Malvern Hills. That was a very productive time. I became artist-in-residence there and produced several Elgar albums, first with Black Box and then with Naxos, and received great reviews. The Elgar Society magazine said you could hear I had the blood of Genghis Khan, which was interesting … I don’t consider Elgar a purely English composer, but universal.

Six years ago I founded the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra. Our recording of Karl Jenkins with Sony BMG and EMI is still in the charts. On a shoestring, I managed to make a great orchestra and to get us many tours. We are played on the radio a lot; we accompany the Lynx advert – a man spraying deodorant – which gives us 17 million hits on Youtube.

Unfortunately, however, the local governor has cancelled our contract. Apparently we have too many foreigners in our orchestra, and spent too much time abroad, though my idea was to make the orchestra like a visiting card from Kazakhstan.

We played Kazakh composers like Almas Serkebayev, who wrote some pieces including a violin concerto especially for me. But because the orchestra does not now exist, the concerto will have to be played this year by the Kazakh State Orchestra and recorded on Toccata Classics. But my orchestra made quite a splash, so maybe Astana or Almaty will offer us something. Astana has a new opera house by the English architect Sir Norman Foster, built in the shape of a pyramid – although he forgot to add auxiliary buildings to house the sets. However, there is also a great new concert hall that seats 3,000 and has excellent acoustics.

I live in England with my wife, a French-Greek violinist, Vassilia, and our two children, aged six and two. But I also have a home in Almaty, which I built myself in the form of a violin and grand piano. You can see it on Google Earth: as usual, violin and piano stick together!


Hermione Eyre is a lifelong Londoner, who since graduating from Hertford College, Oxford, in 2001 has worked full-time as a writer and interviewer, writing for the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph, Elle, Prospect and the New Statesman.