East Meets West: Aiman Mussakhajayeva records Lowell Liebermann's Violin Concerto

Monday, April 3, 2023

Jack Pepper sits down with the Artistic Director of Global Music Partnership, Dr Vladimir Dyo, to hear how he helped bring these two diverse artists together

Aiman Mussakhajayeva records Lowell Liebermann's Violin Concerto
Aiman Mussakhajayeva records Lowell Liebermann's Violin Concerto

What brings together leading American composer Lowell Liebermann and superstar Kazakh violinist, Aiman Mussakhajayeva? Liebermann has written for The Royal Ballet, Juilliard School and Sir James Galway; Aiman is a UNESCO Artist for Peace, rector of Kazakh National University of Arts and has appeared at venues including Carnegie Hall and the Royal Festival Hall.

Mussakhajayeva has recently made the first recording of Liebermann’s 2001 Violin Concerto, alongside new arrangements made by the composer of his two Chamber Concertos (again, recorded for the first time, with Liebermann on the piano in his first chamber concerto for violin, piano and chamber orchestra); the album is set to be released by the Blue Griffin Record label in April.

Jack Pepper sits down with the Artistic Director of Global Music Partnership, Dr Vladimir Dyo, to hear how he helped bring these two diverse artists together…

JP: How did this collaboration start?

VD: Our organisation is built on a network of musicians’ friends from different parts of the world. One of my colleagues mentioned that there is a fantastic Violin Concerto by Lowell Liebermann, but it’s not recorded. I started to think which violinist could put this right, and we came up with the idea of bridging two cultures. I studied in Kazakhstan and Aiman Mussakhajayeva was my violin professor; she is the most celebrated violinist in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. She is an incredibly talented and versatile musician, and I was confident she would bring a powerful interpretation to Lowell Liebermann’s concerto.

JP: What does this concerto say about its soloist and its composer?

VD: Lowell said that this is one of his favourite works in his output. The second movement was written in memory of John Ardoin, who was a music critic in Dallas and became a close friend. He was a specialist in Maria Callas; that is why there are echoes of bel canto in that movement. Lowell was frustrated that the concerto had virtually sat on the shelf after its premiere (by Chantal Juillet with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit), and has not been picked up by other soloists until now, despite glowing reviews after the premiere. One critic said it could well become the most popular American violin concerto since Barber.

Aiman Mussakhajayeva meets Antony Blinken

JP: Aiman is the subject of a new documentary film from the producers behind ‘The Conductor’ (celebrating Marin Alsop). This feature tries to capture a wider sense of Aiman as an artist. How would you describe her broader cultural impact in Kazakhstan?

VD: When the Soviet Union existed, the culture system was unified and Moscow was in charge of the education system. If you had potential, you studied in Moscow or St Petersburg. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, each state was on its own and many music institutions were downgraded. However, in Kazakhstan, the government supported the arts and Aiman was a figure who had all the skills and connections. In addition to being a soloist with the State Philharmonia and a professor at the National Conservatory in Almaty and the Moscow Conservatory, she launched a chamber orchestra named the 'Academy of Soloists' in the 1990s. When the President asked if Aiman had any other projects in mind, she said she wanted to build a music academy. The President invited her to create this in the new capital. They decided to build the system from elementary school to PhD, creating a unified five-level education system that recruited students from the age of five upwards. The Kazakh National University of Arts teaches multiple disciplines, from photography to ballet, instrumental lessons to artist management. Under Aiman’s leadership, a body of students and professors from across Kazakhstan were willing to risk everything and move to this new place. A small group of students – including me – went there with no idea of what was going to happen!

JP: What did your experience as a student there teach you?

VD: I had graduated from high school and so it was a conservatory experience for me. We had to do a lot of things: fixing the old buildings, painting the dormitory ourselves, installing locks into doors! I was the orchestra conductor for a year. Everyone lived in the dormitory, including Aiman and the professors; we all lived in one place. Since my childhood, Aiman had been a superstar; as a graduate, she was taking part and won awards in international competitions: Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Tokyo, Paganini… for Kazakhstan, that was unprecedented. For us, we wanted to be like her. She was a big motivation.

JP: How would you describe the perception of classical music in Kazakhstan now? Has Aiman popularised and widened music-making?

VD: For professional music education, we have only one conservatory for the entire country. It’s the ninth largest nation in the world, but the population – at 19 million – is very small.

Once we had this new model from Aiman – music studies sitting alongside film, theatre and dance – and because of her international connections, she was able to attract a lot of specialists from the West and build relationships with Western institutions. They created exchange programmes where students could study abroad. The university orchestras and ensembles often travel abroad and perform in prestigious venues across Europe and the US. The Kazakh National University of Arts has grown into such a significant cultural centre in Central Asia that it was even included on the itinerary of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to Kazakhstan.

Lowell Liebermann and Aiman Mussakhajayeva

JP: This cross-border collaboration is something that you encourage with the Global Music Partnership. How would you summarise how East can meet West and what that can bring?

VD: Aiman says that music is an international language through which people can communicate, regardless of whether they are Kazakh, Uzbek, Russian, or American. It brings our worlds together. At Global Music Partnership we firmly believe that music is a universal language that transcends borders and promotes unity among people irrespective of their cultural, religious, or social backgrounds. We are convinced that music can play a significant role in fostering peace and understanding among nations. In my experience as a classical musician, we develop our own circle of friends in the music world and at some point our circle gets locked. People tend to stay within their circles. Why can’t we connect all these circles? This project demonstrates that, despite our differences, we can still come together through music.

JP: How easy is collaboration on a global scale?

VD: Collaborating on a global scale can be challenging due to differences in mindsets, business styles and cultures. Living in both the East and West and coming from a multicultural background (I’m ethnically Korean but I was born in Kazakhstan) have helped me understand the mentalities of various cultures. This understanding of how different people think is key. These mentalities are extremely different. In the West, organisations plan projects at least one to two years in advance; in the former Soviet Union region including Kazakhstan, they think in terms of one or two months in advance. When we spoke with Lowell, we started the conversation a whole year before the recording. Trust and planning are key. Although having creative ideas is important, it's not sufficient to ensure project success. Projects wouldn’t succeed without my close friend and GMP business partner, Rustem Orazaly, who understands the legal framework and handles the company's agreements and legal aspects.

JP: So, do musicians speak the same language?

VD: Musicians do. Once the music starts to happen, then they come together. We had such an incredible time in Kazakhstan bringing Lowell and Aiman together, rehearsing, performing, and recording the works of the leading composer of the West by the leading violinist of the East. Logistics is where there are differences, and an understanding of different systems and cultures and the trust that comes with friendship help make projects come true. But in music-making, there are no boundaries. That’s why we do it.

Aiman Mussakhajayeva’s recording of Lowell Liebermann’s Violin Concerto and Chamber Concertos Nos 1 and 2 will be released on the Blue Griffin Record label in April.

Find out more about Aiman Mussakhajayeva: globalmusicp.world/aiman

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