In The Steppes of Glorious West-Central Kazakhstan

When I first read in the London Daily Telegraph the news that “Borat’s Brother,” composer Erran Baron Cohen, was commissioned by something called the Turan Alem Philharmonic Orchestra of Kazakhstan to write a piece for the orchestra’s London debut, I figured it was at best a savvy publicity stunt, and at worst a total hoax. But it turns out that both the Borat bro and the orchestra are legit – and there’s even a logic behind it. Besides scoring his brother’s movies (yes, including the still-banned-in-Kazakhstan “Borat Erran Cohan has been writing global trance music with a Middle Eastern theme for some years now. A discography check of Cohen’s work with his band Zohar (he writes, produces, plays trumpet and various Middle Eastern instruments) on the All Music Guide includes such titles as “Asian Chill,” “Marrakesh Mission,” “Desert Grooves,” and so on. Turns out that Boratbro’s band played in LA a few years ago, where they were blurbbed thusly:
“The innovative four-piece ensemble from Great Britain blends mystical middle eastern sounds with modern technology and dance grooves, while retaining a sense of spirituality. Zohar’s new soul fusion of Jewish cantors, Arab muzzeins, and Byzantine chants effortlessly connects cultures separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles.”

And what of the Kazahki band, dubbed the “West Kazakhstan Philharmonic” by most of the press? Well, there are actually two – it’s kind of a Parliament/Funkadelic thing – the same band, with different titles. the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic has been around since 2003. They’re about a 25-piece band, and have made a speciality out of recording and performing the classical compositions by “Diamond Music” composer (and former member of the ’70s prog-rock band Soft Machine) Karl Jenkins.

The “Turan Alem” are actually a brand-new band, having made their public debut just last month. Or, as their website puts it:

TuranAlem Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra will have its first presentation on April 4 at Opera House in Almaty, Kazakhstan.This is world standard orchestra was created for the purpose to promote great sample of classic music. This orchestra is sponsored by Bank TuranAlem and led by famous violonist Marat Bisengaliev. Orchestra will perform Elgar concerto for violine and Tchaikovskiy, Symphony N 5.
That’s their writing, not Borat’s, in case you’re wondering! Anyway, for their London debut the Turans (who are led by violinist Marat Bisengaliev), premiered Erran Baron Cohen’s “Zere.” So, how did it go? The Telegraph tally:

Zere is a 20-minute piece of mood music, with the standard orchestra given an added tang by the use of such folk instruments as the domra and kobyz. To say this exotic colouring was the most interesting thing about the piece is perhaps to do it a slight injustice, but the three movements were fairly directionless, and from the point of view of style did not do anything that would have unnerved Vaughan Williams or Rimsky-Korsakov.

Still, the London paper saw some promise in the orchestra:

The major test was Haydn’s Symphony No 104. Let’s not pretend the Berlin Philharmonic need yet look to its laurels, but there was some good, honest playing here and a potential among these young players that one felt could profitably be tapped by conductors prepared to work hard on interpretation and finesse.

Bisengaliev’s approach was not, frankly, the most searching, and the performance made no concessions to contemporary thinking on historically aware practice, but the ensemble was precise, the sound clear and the rhythms alert. Given time, the orchestra could, as Borat would have said, make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

Not sure if we’re going to hear any “Zere” there, but the Boratbro’s band, Zohar, will be coming to America this summer – they’re playing in Chicago on July 15th.

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