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.

Oscar Night

All right, everyone’s got an opinion about the movies, so today’s lead is a few observations from last night’s Oscar roundup:

*I work in radio, not TV, but I was profoundly impressed with the originality and creativity of the production. There were more new (and mostly good!) ideas on the show that I’ve seen in years of Oscar-watching. The first twenty minutes were as good as live television gets – the opening Errol Morris “Nominees” film – the (John C. Reilly) – (“a comedian at the Oscars is the saddest, bitterest alcoholic clown.”) – the cheerfully and elegantly navigated by Ellen DeGeneres. Sadly, (and predictably) it ran out of gas and went on for way too long, but far better than usual.

>Who are the Hollywood Sound Effects Choir? Are they for real? 40 voices “singing” sound effects to a classic-film backdrop. Brilliant. Sadly, the Oscar and ABC sites don’t tell us a thing about them…

>So, if three out of five songs from Dreamgirls are nominated for Best Original Song and they lose out to a fashionable-if-pedestrian (“I Need to Wake Up”) effort from Melissa Etheridge, what does that say about a movie that’s supposed to be based on the phenomenon of a label called “Hitsville USA?” (Oh, and there’s a reason the “official” movie URL is “dreamgirlsmovie”)

>Watching her perform the song live with the eco-bromides flashing in the background was Radio on the TV – if the radio station is the new DC-based station The Globe (subject of a previous rant)

>Nice to see Gustavo Santaolallaget the prize for Best Original Score for Babel. Classy acceptance speech, too. I’m one of millions who missed this film and intend to fix that. (Santaolalla won for Brokeback Mountain last year). Check out my old NPR colleague Andy Trudeau’s piece on Santaolla’s screen-music techniques with Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen. Andy knows more about film music than any man alive, I’ll wager, and he’s NPR’s “go-to guy” on the subject. His entire series on Oscar music nominees is worth a listen,
as is the piece he did on last night’s Honorary Oscar award winner Ennio Morricone.

>Classiest acceptance speech of the night: Ari Sandel, for the the Live Action Short West Bank Story. The clip they showed – The Sharks and the Jets transformed into feuding falafel stands – looked brilliant. So where you see something like this in Anytown USA? Answer: Off the website, I guess.

>Classy speech II: Former USC opera singer and King of Scotland Best Actor winner Forest Whitaker. Hard to believe he made his movie debut with Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I also discovered that last year Whitaker literally lent his voice to a cause called Before the Music Dies, a documentary shown at SXSW and other places featuring a cast of – get this – Bonnie Raitt, Branford Marsalis,Dave Matthews Band Elvis Costello, Eric ClaptonErykah BaduLes Paul – and Widespread Panic, just to name a few. I wonder if we’ll ever hear Whitaker sing again? That is, somewhere other than on YouTube, which features him in an impromptu performance on a Milan TV station