ASTANA – On its 80th anniversary this year, the Almaty-based Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory arranges a raft of jubilee events. For eight decades, the institution has been pursuing its mission to form national cadres of composers, vocalists, conductors, performers on academic and folk instruments, and musicologists. In an interview with The Astana Times, the conservatory’s rector Nurken Ashirov shared personal revelations, presented key achievements, and shed light on the upcoming activities.
The dombyra, a two-stringed national instrument, is Ashirov’s main instrument. Ashirov graduated from the institution himself back in 2006. He also finished the postgraduate course on orchestral conducting.
“In addition to performing the rector’s duties, I teach students as a conductor in the educational folklore orchestra established at the conservatory in 2019 on the initiative of Arman Zhudebayev, the former rector and an honored worker of Kazakhstan,” he said.
Ashirov also plays the piano, while his spouse plays the kobyz, an ancient Turkic string instrument. “It is no coincidence that our family leisure time is playing in a house ensemble. In addition, we often travel across Kazakhstan together, enjoying the beauty and grandeur of our nature,” he said.
The conservatory he runs is home to 1,094 undergraduate students, 91 postgraduates, and 12 doctoral students. Four faculties and 14 departments provide programs on music education and management, instrumental performance, musicology and performing arts, and folk music.
Historical heritage and cultural asset
In 1944, a decision was made to establish the Almaty-based higher institution of musical education, which marked the beginning of forming the country’s professional music education system. In 1945, the conservatory was named after an outstanding Kazakh folk composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayev.
Well-known Kazakh musicians, such as Akhmet Zhubanov, Yevgeny Brusilovsky, Mukan Tulebayev, Sydyk Mukhamedzhanov, Kuddus Khojamyarov, Gaziza Zhubanova, and Yerkegali Rakhmadiyev, have formed the national composer school of Kazakhstan.
“They raised the musical culture of Kazakhstan to a high professional level and introduced our traditional and academic music to an international audience. The task of today’s generation of musicians, teachers, and students is to continue this work, not to lower the high bar of professional skill and quality,” said Ashirov.
The rector proudly highlighted that the higher education institution adheres to international standards in professional music education. This was confirmed, for instance, by the Music Quality Enhancement (MusiQuE) organization during their accreditation of the conservatory’s programs in May 2023.
“The Belgium-based agency accredits the leading conservatories in Europe. From European experts, it was an honor to receive certificates of specialized accreditation from the Conservatory for the maximum period – until November 2029. The European Association of Conservatoires (AEC) accepted us as a full member back in 2019, and we are also proud of this achievement,” he said.
Throughout the years, accomplished Kazakh musicians have studied and worked as educators in the conservatory, with their contributions acknowledged not only in Kazakhstan but also extending far beyond its borders.
Opera diva Bibigul Tulegenova, a graduate of the vocal and choral faculty, won the hearts of millions of listeners on the world’s greatest stages.
Prominent bariton Yermek Serkebayev, who took the singing course led by Russian tenor Alexander Kurganov, chaired juries of renowned music competitions, including the Tchaikovsky International Competition and the Glinka International Music Competition.
First student and then professor Gafiz Yessimov, the soloist of the Abai Opera House, has been giving lectures since his graduation in 1975. The state academic symphony orchestra, the largest musical group in Kazakhstan, was also headed by the conservatory’s graduate Tolepbergen Abdrashev and was later named after him.
Plans and ambitions for 2024
As the conservatory turned 80, its administration compiled an extensive program of events. It is planned to conduct two large gala concerts – one in the Republic Palace in Almaty and the other in the Central Concert Hall in Astana. Cathedral concerts, which will be organized by teachers and students in the institution, are also part of the schedule.
“The preliminary program of the gala concert includes performances of our creative teams, reflecting the heritage of Kazakh and foreign composers, as well as the solo performances of traditional and classical singers,” he said.
The conservatory plans to organize a tour at both national and global levels, which will feature particular student groups – a mixed choir, a symphony orchestra, a folklore orchestra, and an orchestra of Kazakh folk instruments.
“Such events are of great importance for the professional growth of our students, the development and deepening of their concert performance skills. In addition, this is an opportunity to demonstrate the creative potential,” he said.
Every year, over 200 people out of nearly 1,200 students become laureates of top national and international performing and research competitions.
“Apart from creative projects, the plan of anniversary events also includes scientific forums – the first national contest of scientific essays among undergraduate students, two international scientific and practical conferences, roundtables dedicated to the conservatory’s history and individuals who contributed to the development of the institution, as well as to the problems of musical performance and composing,” said the rector.
Another initiative launched this year is the creation of a book on the conservatory’s history. Its concept and structure, as well as the content materials, will be used in filming the historical documentary.
“The idea of the film is to preserve invaluable footage about the history of the country’s oldest institution and its best teachers. For 80 years, there have been a lot of them. Now, we are looking for funding for this project,” he said.
Academic partnerships with overseas higher institutions of musical education, art universities, and research centers represent one of the key focus areas of the Kurmangazy conservatory, paving the way for developing new educational, scientific, and creative projects.
Ashirov noted that the conservatory has concluded 45 cooperation agreements with universities and scientific organizations from 20 countries worldwide.
“Our key partners in mobility programs both for students and teachers are the Superior Conservatory of Music of Vigo in Spain and the Karol Lipinski Academy of Music in Wroclaw in Poland,” he said.
“Right now, four of our undergraduate students are studying for a semester in Russia at the Petrozavodsk State Glazunov Conservatory in Karelia, and two more will go to the Zhiganov Kazan State Conservatory in Tatarstan in mid-February,” he added.
The students are also provided with the opportunity to study abroad as part of exchange programs funded by the state, for example, through the Erasmus+ program.
“Exchange programs help to improve professionalism and expand horizons. The children learn a different culture, various teaching methods, master a new repertoire, eventually gain communication skills with colleagues and learn foreign languages,” he said.
For the Kurmangazy conservatory, international cooperation remains critical in developing an effective system of musical education in the country and promoting its image abroad.