How NSO conductor swopped Queen for Wagner
Alan Buribayev was more of a rock fan until he made a momentous discovery at the age of 11
ALAN Buribayev, the young Kazakhstani Principal Conductor of the RTE National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), is a passionately committed musician whose profound knowledge of music belies his 34 years. His love and fervour for music spills out from the very core of his being.
Since formally taking over from Gerhard Markson in 2010, Buribayev's performances with the NSO are marked by their precise balance between rigour and electricity. Words like "insightful", "passionate", "intense", and "vibrant" regularly feature in his notices.
Buribayev believes that music is definitely in the moment and is never to be taken as something static, frozen in a particular epoch: "Art is happening now – every concert is unique. We musicians should never just play for ourselves. The concert stage is not some kind of formal museum – it is always a dialogue with the audience, one in which every member of the auditorium has a role."
When asked how his relationship with the orchestra has developed over the last three years, he points out in his patiently careful manner that three years of experiences with over 80 musicians defies being reduced to a few words. "We know each other better now and I can afford to take some more calculated risks from the podium on a given night. That way we keep things exciting. Besides that, I've developed nice relationships with many of the players themselves. We are now more like a family," he says.
Buribayev appreciates the fact that, as in his country of Kazakhstan, the Irish have a deep and long tradition of folk music. (He explains that the composition of formal "classical" music didn't exist in Kazakhstan until the 20th Century. His great grandfather, Akhmet Zhubanov, was one of Kazakhstan's first opera composers.)
"Ireland is a very musical nation – one can see that everywhere, from the pubs to the streets to the concert halls. I especially appreciate the open-mindedness of the musicians in the NSO. It is very easy for me to convince them to play what are effectively the monoliths of the standard repertory in a completely new fashion. Sometimes in countries such as Germany or Finland, more famous for their deep symphonic heritage, there is a resistance to playing Brahms or Sibelius in any way other than the ways that they've always been played. When I was in my 20s, this struggle against a different interpretation of the score bothered me more than it does now," he explains.
"I'm actually a nice guy. I just try to convince people to do it a different way. I'm not a tyrant," he says.
Buribayev has always had a musically rebellious streak. Although the son of a pianist mother and a cellist/conductor father, he had no huge attraction to classical music at first. He was much more of a fan of Queen and Freddie Mercury. His epiphany came when he was 11 years old and he heard Wagner's Tannhauser for the first time. He thought to himself: "Oh my God, there's something actually better than Queen out there! How can I get more of it?"
His father promptly told him that if he wanted to gain that depth of knowledge of music, he needed to become a conductor. Twenty-three years later, Irish audience are now reaping the rewards of the then-11-year-old boy's life-changing decision.
There is a price of pay for such a commitment to music. It is far from being an easy life. He is flying out to Japan the day after we meet and he won't get home for another month. He's also recovering from a severe head cold.
Buribayev says matter-of-factly that as a conductor, you simply can't allow yourself to be ill: "If I miss a rehearsal, I'm letting down 80 people who will be underprepared for that evening's performance."
Apart from the depth of knowledge and sheer memory required to be a conductor, no matter how well you think you know a piece of music, you always have a long night's homework ahead of you.
He is very grateful for the music education that he received from the age of seven. "This is something that the Soviets did very well. Once you had a talent and were prepared to work very hard, your music education didn't cost you a dime ... as you say in the West. If you think of the economics of having both an experienced violin teacher and an equally experienced rehearsal pianist teaching a young child to play an instrument in tune, it simply doesn't make sense," he says.
We discuss the global recession and its impact on classical music. Concert halls are emptying and are being just about supported by the ever-loyal grey brigade. He agrees that these are challenging times. He recently bumped into a New York musician who is now seeking work in Europe. "If you're not in the New York Philharmonic, your only other choice is the wedding-circuit."
Buribayev says that there are opportunities nowadays that no one could ever have predicted. The gaming community has embraced orchestral music and even such luminaries as the London Philharmonic are recording the soundtracks to the world's favourite games.
"Besides, orchestral musicians have been complaining for decades that they will soon have no one to play to unless young people start coming to the concert halls. It doesn't work that way. When you're younger, you tend to think that the world is black and white, that it is more simple than it actually is. One's taste in music reflects that simple vision. It is only when you're older that a Tchaikovsky or a Brahms – with all of their beautiful internal angst – gives you what you might need at that stage in your life."
I suppose that means that if at a certain age you still haven't found what you're looking for, you may discover Mozart. And he might actually be better than Queen.