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Beyond the Bio: Finding His Own Path – A Conversation with Kazem Abdullah

The music found Kazem Abdullah as a fifth-grader in Ohio, when someone asked him to choose an instrument. His parents, who were not musical themselves, got him to orchestra rehearsals, where he played clarinet, then to the Interlochen Arts Camp.

Professors at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the University of Southern California encouraged his music interpretation and expression. Conductors welcomed him into their rehearsals.

It all led to Abdullah’s international reputation as a conductor who is equally fluent in orchestra and opera. For the last seven years he’s lived in Germany, a country with 83 publicly-funded opera houses, 130 orchestras and 70 music festivals. Abdullah had just returned from a guest conducting tour in China when we caught up for a chat.

It must be encouraging to see so much public backing for the arts, as well as public enthusiasm and access.
That is exactly correct. The arts here strive just a little bit more, because I think there is a certain amount of public support for artistic organizations.

You seem to have found a niche there. Could you talk about the road that took you to this point?
As far as my own road to becoming a conductor and living and working here, yes, it was definitely a long road. Every musician has their own path and their own way. You just try to make the best of whatever opportunities you are given and you try to keep the ball moving.

Your work on Brokeback Mountainwith the New York City Opera got a lot of praise. Do you enjoy contemporary opera?
I do like opera just because it gives a chance to tell a story with the added perspective of music. And I’ve done a lot of new music, and I’ve done many new operas and contemporary works, and it’s something that is a very important aspect of my work, doing new work and establishing relationships with living composers. I feel that I am at home with 20th- and 21st century compositional styles. That’s definitely one of my specialties.

How do you deal with the stress of your job?
I find that exercise manages stress. It helps you stay in shape because conducting is such a physical thing. You have to stay mentally sharp and you’re going to have to stay physically strong. I try to make sure to take care of myself by exercising and eating right.

Do you ever feel a pressure to be perfect?
It’s not pressure, I wouldn’t say that. There ispressure to want to give a good performance, to make sure you are representing the art as well as you can. There is pressure, of course, to make sure people can relate and connect to the product you’re putting out. But I do think that if one does the necessary preparation, then that pressure eases.

What does preparation look like for you?
Any time I conduct a piece, whether it’s opera or symphonic, it’s always important for me to try to understand the context of what I’m conducting, both musical and nonmusical. One’s interpretation can change dramatically by knowing what the historical context of the composer was, what the situation was. What was the reason for writing the piece? Was if just for personal reasons, or was it for financial reasons? What was the inspiration for the piece? How does that fit within whatever musical structures existed at the time? Also, what pieces were written before and after? Any time I’m studying or learning about new work it’s always knowing that work as thoroughly as possible, and then also knowing the surrounding environment of the composer. So you try to kind of delve in deep, and that kind of knowledge is really cumulative. You don’t acquire it all in a couple of years. It’s really a lifetime.

Some people worry about the sustainability of classical music, about reaching younger generations. Are you?
I feel that the best way to get sustainability for our art form is to do two things. First, make sure that we give a musical education to everyone, regardless of class or demographic. Make sure that everyone has a chance to try an instrument and learn an instrument, so that everyone has an appreciation for the craft and the art form. I think that’s the best way to make sure that we have a sort of continuity of classical music. So that even in the same way we respect Mark Twain and authors of the past while still discovering new writers of fiction and nonfiction, the same thing applies to music. The more people know about the old masters, the more they can appreciate having works by newer composers. Then we keep growing the canon and keep the tradition alive.

Away from work, what do you do to relax?
When I’m not conducting I’m usually exercising or running, mountain biking or reading. I’m always reading newspapers and I’m a big lover of fiction and nonfiction.