When Emily Freeman Brown landed in Astana, Kazakhstan, Oct. 1, she practically hit the ground running. Invited by the U.S. State Department to help celebrate the opening of the new embassy in Astana, site of the country’s new capital, the BGSU conductor got to work the next morning after her 22-hour journey.
“Right from the very next day, I was doing rehearsals and master classes,” she said. The work was in part preparation for a concert Oct. 4 by the professional Academy of Soloists chamber orchestra and the Symphonic Orchestra of Astana.
That program and a later concert by the student orchestra in Almaty, the country’s former capital, featured works by American composers such as Samuel Adler, Leonard Bernstein, William Schuman, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland.
“The most gratifying thing about the trip and my contribution was being able to bring pieces by these wonderful American composers to the orchestras and the audiences,” she said.
“They clearly liked the music and enjoyed playing it, and they worked very hard to learn to play it well,” she added. “And the audiences were very receptive. That was the most meaningful to me.”
In addition to the American music, both concerts included a well-known piece by Kazakh composer Tles Kazhgaliyev. Later, the embassy newsletter reported about the Astana performance:
“In recognition of Kazakhstan's capital city and the friendship between Kazakhstan and the United States, Brown opened the concert with flawless renditions of the national anthems. At the conclusion of the concert with the rollicking Kazhgaliyev piece, the crowd gave Emily a five-minute thunderous ovation, punctuated with cries of ‘Bravo!’”
Though she had never before conducted the Kazakh piece, which she equated to John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” for its level of familiarity, Brown said she was open to learning it. “Part of bridging the cultural divide when you’re working with a foreign orchestra is that you allow them to educate you and inform you, and that’s part of the fun,” she said.
While in Astana, Brown was invited by members of the student Folk Orchestra to conduct them. “But I don’t know the piece,” she protested. However, the conductor showed her the score, said the orchestra would help, and they worked together. “It was one of the high points of my trip, and I later learned I was the first foreigner to conduct that orchestra,” she said.
Building the future
Though Kazakhstan is a very old civilization, its entrée into the modern world is fairly recent, she said. Its people were formerly nomadic, like their eastern neighbors the Mongolians. “It’s a fascinating place to go,” Brown said. She enjoyed a visit to a museum where she saw a display of the traditional yurt, or boiled wool tent, filled with “brilliantly colored carpets, wall coverings, pom poms and elaborately hand-carved furniture.”
Emily Freeman Brown at the Grand Organ Hall of the Conservatory in Almaty Oct. 11.
Photo by Ilya Cherednichenko.
Astana, the new capital, is being built from the ground up. “Everything there is so new; it’s unlike anything we can imagine,” she said. Even Almaty, the former capital located along the ancient Silk Road trade route, is only about 100 years old. Following the end of 70 years of Soviet rule, the cultural institutions are changing, as is the face of the population, with many Russian citizens leaving to return to Russia.
Brown said she was struck by the openness of the people while in Almaty. Wanting to visit a gallery, she was told by her embassy guide that they would take a taxi, which she quickly learned meant “standing on the side of the street and flagging down passing drivers. If one was going in the direction you wanted to go, they would take you there, and you gave them some money in return. They trust their fellow countrymen to take them, and it all works,” she recalled.
Brown met several faculty members from local universities, many of whom were American. She was startled to hear the result of a BGSU football game—picked up on the Internet—from a former Los Angeles Times reporter now teaching journalism in Almaty.
A new perspective
Brown said she returned from the trip with a new appreciation of some things that Americans tend to take for granted, as well as for how much the Kazakhs have accomplished with so much less. “It changes your perspective and brings your values into better focus. People in the arts there have to work extremely hard,” she said, and they are concerned that, with the current concentration on building the country’s new oil economy, arts and social policies could be neglected.
She also admires the commitment of the Kazakh music community to providing classical music for audiences in the face of pervasive popular culture influences from abroad. “It’s easy to bring popular music—you can just download it—but it takes a much bigger effort to bring concert music to people,” she observed.
The intensity of the experience and the inspiration it provided will undoubtedly impact her work here, she said. “You get a more global perspective. It changes the way you look at life, the way you look at art and the way you think of making music.”