The article was initially published in Liter Kazakh newspaper, issue No. 64
The String Quartet’s tour geography is exceptionally wide: the ensemble successfully performs in many of Kazakhstan’s cities and gives brilliant performances in the leading concert halls of Russia, France, England, Austria, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, Japan, and the Principality of Liechtenstein, to name but a few.
The Kazakh Quartet – the Gaziza Zhubanova State String Quartet – is a guest at Liter’s guest room today.
This Wednesday, music was played in the editorial office for the first time. Live, real, fascinating, touching the soul, exciting the imagination and overwhelming the senses. The famous “Aday” by Kurmangazy swept like a fresh breeze over the editorial computers, telephones, diaries, and seemed to make home in the soul of every person who was lucky enough to be there at this time.
Aidar Toktaliyev – first violin
Alexei Lebedev – second violin
Bekzat Sailaubaiuly – alto
Yernar Myntayev – cello, artistic director
They didn’t come to our office empty-handed – each one of them was carefully carrying his instrument. Those instruments were also cared for with great love many hundreds of years before these musicians were even born. It’s true. For example, the cello which the artistic director of the quartet plays was “born” in the 18th century. Yernar even buys a separate plane ticket so that the instrument is not damaged in the luggage section. And when asked whether it’s true that a cello is jealous of its musician and doesn’t allow them to start a family for a long time, he smiles mysteriously…
Bright, sociable, talented – the members of the quartet organically complement each other, despite the difference in age and looks. Two Kazakhs, a Kyrgyz and a Mari speak in unison in the language of music. But it was not always this way. Over the last 30 years the quartet experienced different periods of revival.
It all started with a prophecy
Yernar, the artistic director of the ensemble, is part of the original quartet. He was one of four students of the Ahmet Zhubanov music school who was praised and given a start in life by the daughter of the legendary musician and an outstanding personality Gaziza Zhubanova.
“It was Dina Churenova who formed our first line-up. She was our violin tutor. We were studying at a music school when she suggested we play as a quartet. At the beginning, it was simply interesting to us, but when she played Beethoven performed by the famous Borodin quartet, we had a ‘culture shock’: HOW someone can play like THAT? Can a quartet sound like that?!
Ever since that moment, that ‘virus’ poisoned our blood, we wanted to play music for real and become a quartet. That was in 1988.
That is when the history of the string quartet began – the quartet that was born in the Ahmet Zhubanov specialised music boarding school for gifted children.”
Rehearsals took place, followed by competitions and success. We put all our efforts to perform at almost every school concert organised for students. One day, after one of such concert, she approached Mukhtar Uteuov who was then Director of the Philharmonic: “Dear Mukhtar, please save this ensemble and show them your support if possible. You will see – they will make our art famous across the world,” she told him.
Mr Uteuov kept his promise and offered every support he could. It was he who managed to secure the “State” status for the quartet.
“It was very important for us. It was in 1995 when we started to go on tours with Mr Uteuov’s help. And the fact that famous Gaziza Zhubanova predicted such a fate for us, helps us to this day,” says Yernar.
It is not by chance that the ensemble is named after this great woman.
The triumphant march
The International Shostakovich String Quartet Competition in Moscow was a landmark event for the ensemble. The titan of quartet art Valentin Berlinsky noticed them. The Embassy of Kazakhstan kindly requested him to give a masterclass to the ensemble. After listening to their performance, Berlinsky praised their talent:
“Guys, I can see fire in your eyes. You are not just quartet music lovers, you are really devoted to it. From now on you can call me any time, and if I am in Moscow, I will teach you free of charge”.
Until the end of his life, he took on the patronage of ‘his Kazakhs’, as he used to say. Having such a master as an ally, the quartet begun its triumphant march around the world.
Taking lessons from Rainer Schmidt, a member of the Hagen quartet, which is considered one of the top quartets in the world, didn’t come easily.
Rainer suggested they go through a qualifying competition: “Come and take part in a competition and if you deserve it, I will teach you, but if there is someone better than you, well then I’m sorry”. The quartet’s answer was: “Give us a chance and we will not fail”.
Learning from the world’s best quartet schools, the State String Quartet is developing its own unique sound that touches the hearts of true lovers of high-quality quartet music.
Everyone is in charge here
Four people in an ensemble is, in fact, not a lot. However, if we consider that each one of the four is a figure with a NAME, one can’t help but wonder how they manage to coexist peacefully, without hitting each other’s “starry” foreheads?
As the artistic director of the ensemble, Yernar provides a simple explanation to this question. Every person in the quartet is in charge. If the first violin is the face of the quartet, the second violin is no less important – it is the heart. And the alto and the cello are no less important organs of this organism. Only together can they produce a powerful energy, the expected result.
The members of the ensemble admit that each one of them could pursue a solo career, but the love for the quartet is stronger and higher than their own ambitions. “The quartet genre is considered an elite and complex genre in classical music. And in this genre, not only abilities, but also human qualities are important, it’s like a family” Yernar explains.
Each of the participants took his own path to the quartet. The first violin was searched for almost a year.
“I grew up in a musical family. My dad plays the bassoon, and my mom plays the piano. So, my future was predetermined. I would like to note that I have never regretted this. My mom wanted me to play the violin. And that’s exactly what happened.
When I was a student of the Kulyash Baiseitova music school and took classes from the legendary tutor Nina Patrusheva, who educated many famous violinists, such as Aiman Musakhodzhayeva, Marat Bisengaliev, and Gaukhar Myrzabekova, I received an invitation to a quartet. And she [Patrusheva] gave me her blessing.
That’s how I joined the quartet. We have been together for almost 15 years now. We set ourselves high goals. There is no limit to perfection, and the most pleasant part is that we reach those goals and strive to become even better.”
“And in my life, music appeared by chance. I come from a working-class family, from the Republic of Mari El. In Yoshkar-Ola, there is a National Presidential School, and its tutors travelled to villages and conducted auditions throughout the country. And I was invited to further auditions.
My mother was against it, because when I entered school I had to live in a boarding school. But my father and my sister supported me.
I remember being asked: what do you want to play? I answered: the violin. And I have been playing it ever since.
In Kazan, I continued my studies in a specialised school. Then I studied in a music academy. During my 4th year I decided to take part in a competition to join the quartet and succeeded. My tutors supported me, everything contributed to my arrival in Kazakhstan. I have already taken root here, I am married to a Kazakh woman, and we are raising two children.
“My mother instilled a love for music in me. She was not a professional musician but played the dombra and the kobyz [traditional Kazakh musical instruments]. And she dreamed of seeing me and my brother in music. Once she took us to an audition to a music school. My brother took the exam and I was running around repeating everything. The tutors noticed me and that’s how I stayed to learn music.
“There are no musicians in our family either but we all love to sing. My mom worked at the Zhubanov musical school and wanted me to enrol to dombra classes. However, her friend – the late Zaira Sadvokasova – looked at my hands, checked my skills and convinced my mom that I should play cello instead. Initially, mom did not agree and kept on insisting the dombra was for me. But Zaira talked her out of the idea by saying: “if he masters a string instrument, he will eventually be able to play dombra. There is a lack of cello players in the country, don’t waste your chance”.
This is how I ended up in the hands of my great tutor Zhukeyev. Yes, my years of study were not easy – there have been tears, failures, slacking off. But once my teacher took me to a concert where I heard a professional cellist playing. It was so beautiful, the tender, divine music sounded as if it was coming out of his chest, not out of his cello. And I asked my tutor: “Will I ever be able to play like that?” He said, of course, all you need is to study diligently and not miss your classes. And after that I never skipped my cello classes.
Performing as one
The young musicians frequently perform overseas where their fans call them “The Kazakh Quartet” and always greet them warmly. Three months ago, they performed in Qatar, the concert hall was full, and after the performance one of the guests came to the dressing room to compliment the musicians: “Guys, you all sound like a single 16-string instrument. How do you do that?” It was an extremely pleasing and important feedback.
“When we perform as a single unit and the audience hears that – it is a fantastic feeling”, Yernar says. “Sometimes, after playing the first chord I feel like I am flying. The piece lasts some 20 minutes, and I only regain my consciousness when I find myself playing the last chord and have no idea how I spent all that time. And only looking at the enormously exited and cheering audience I understand that we have just produced something extraordinary.”
The members of the quartet also fondly remember a lucky coincidence in Switzerland where they spent two years as Bolashak [Presidential scholarship in Kazakhstan] students trained in the academy of music by Ryan Schmidt – one of the best professors of quartet music.
“There were other quartets besides us, including from Japan, England, Switzerland, Spain. And at the gala concert which we were closing, we played Mendelssohn. There were not too many people in the audience, the room was not full. A regular small concert, nothing unusual. However, after our performance one of the guests came to us super excited and asked where we were from. He said he listened to that music many times, performed by European quartets. However, he said, I listened to your music with particular inspiration and had goose bumps all over my body. What’s so special about you, does your blood run in your veins in a different way? He immediately started Googling Kazakhstan and was surprised to find that our country was in the middle of endless steppes. That person turned out to be president of a music label which focuses on chamber music. For many years, he had been searching for a quarter that would be worthy of working with. We were lucky enough to be noticed by him and he invited us to come any time and record our music. He promised to cover all expenses”, says the art director of the quartet.
However, despite the wide public acclaim and praise from professional musicians, the quartet does not want to rest on its laurels. They have charted extremely ambitious plans and possess enough energy and stamina to put them into practice.
“A lot is changing for the better in our country, including in classical music. I remember once we were driving in a taxi in Hamburg, and the taxi driver was listening to Mozart on the radio. He even sang along with the music. I remember well how I sincerely envied the fact that they had classical music on the radio and that the taxi driver understands the art as easily as car parts. And today, we too have the “Klassika” radio, and more and more people go to opera and ballet. We almost always have full audience halls. This is a good progress!” says Yernar without hiding his positive feelings.
“We are still young and a have our lives ahead,” he repeats. And one can’t help but believe him. A man who has lived with great music for three decades and is literally one with the idea of the quartet, will master a lot.
Although there are many difficulties on the path of stardom too. The main one is the money. Classical music is not as well-regarded as pop music by global audiences. Any travel abroad requires financing. The possibilities for the Philharmonic are limited. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan is doing everything possible to promote domestic classical performers. And the musicians themselves try to not develop dull, serious programmes, but mix different genres and performances. Most performances are held in Almaty, because there are more chamber halls there. And in the capital, the quartet plays in the Astana Opera, for which it is thankful to the theatre director Galym Akhmedyarov.
“Next year, the whole world will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the great German composer Beethoven. And we will not stay aside. The composer left a great legacy – 16 string concerts. We have divided them into 6 concerts and are planning to prepare a concert season with all of Beethoven’s cycles,” the quartet’s artistic director says, sharing their plans.
The young musicians also have a dream of hosting an international competition of string quartets named after Gaziza Zhubanova.
“This will be a fantastic promotion of Kazakh culture, including the works of Gaziza Zhubanova,” says Yernar. “We are open to communication; we are ready to share our knowledge and experience. We ought to have a lot of string quartets. And if there are mentorship offers, we will be happy to respond,” Yernar Myntayev assured our readers.