New Conductor on the Block
2005 David Effron Conducting Fellow Kazem Abdullah is becoming one of the most watched American conductors on the scene today. At 34, he is in his second season as Generalmusikdirektor of the City of Aachen, Germany, where he conducts both the orchestral and operatic seasons. He recently took some time to answer questions we had about his life and career.
You started your musical studies at age 10. Tell us about your early experiences with music and how you came to be a musician.
I started studying music in a summer music program run by the Dayton Public Schools in Dayton, Ohio. I was lucky to have had an insightful and great music teacher in the 5th and 6th grade who saw that I had great musical potential. He encouraged me to apply to the Interlochen Arts Camp, where I ended up going for six summers starting in 1991.
When did you realize music was more than just a hobby and that this might be a lifelong venture?
Around 12 years of age.
Were there notable teachers or mentors that helped shape your career? Who, and how so?
I have been fortunate to have many notable teachers throughout my career. During my school years, I had two memorable teachers, Ms. Mitchell and Claude Thomas. As far as playing clarinet, my two principal clarinet teachers were Ron de Kant and Richard Hawley. Lastly, for conducting, I’m most grateful to have studied with Jorma Panula, Gustav Meier and the conductor James Levine.
You performed as a member of highly regarded New World Symphony for two years. Can you talk about that experience as a developing musician?
My two years at New World were so crucial to my development as a musician and conductor. I was able experience what it would be like to play in a professional orchestra before pursuing a conducting career. I learned, of course, about the psychology of an orchestra, but also worked with the various guest conductors and saw what worked and then what did not work. While I never studied with MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) as a conductor, I learned so much playing under his direction.
You are from Indiana, but for now, you’ve landed a position in Germany as Generalmusikdirektor. How did you hear about the job? What was the interview and audition process like? How did it feel to get the job?
I first came to Aachen as a guest conductor in 2010. It was only my second time conducting in Germany. After my first concert, the orchestra and the executive director for the opera house asked me if I would be interested in the position and be willing to go through the search process. I made a formal application, along with 150 other conductors around the world, and was one of seven people invited to conduct performances of Don Giovanni that season and do interviews with the search committee, which consisted of about 15 people. After the performance round, the field was narrowed down to two people. Another candidate and I had to conduct a pair of symphony concerts and I had to present my artistic vision to the search committee. In the end, I was unanimously voted to be the next Chief Conductor by both orchestra and search committee. The whole process took a little over a year.
I would say I was lucky in timing in that I had the chance to work with the orchestra at the right time. The most stressful part was getting my German back in shape — especially for the interviews. Of course, I could have spoken English but it was important to me to show my ability with the language. I actually took time off in the summer of 2011 to be able to go to Middlebury College in the German language immersion program, which lasted about six weeks. It was important for me to show the search committee and orchestra that improving my German was important to me. I spoke and had studied the language already, in high school and college, but was not fluent. After Middlebury I became fluent, more or less.
I was of course very excited when they offered me the position. One pursues this work without any guarantees, and I am lucky in that I get to do opera, symphony and oratorio performances in one of the most beautifully German cities in the heart of Europe. I have just completed my second year here and it goes amazingly well.
What are similarities and differences that you’ve noticed while working in Germany? Have there been any personal struggles or barriers that you’ve had to overcome while working in another country?
I grew up in Dayton, and spent a lot of time in Cincinnati. It is interesting to see how much Ohio is like Germany, in the landscape and also the traditions. It is so amazing how classical music is part of the culture in Germany. Aachen is a city of 300,000 people but we do seven operas a season and 20 pairs of symphony concerts and special concerts. As far as difficulties I have not really had any, with the exception of the learning curve of my German in relation to my administrative duties. I have actually thrived here in a way that I could not in the U.S. I hope one day that some musical institution in the States will allow me to give back to the country in which I was trained.
What are your current endeavors in the arts? Are you working with any organizations, presenting, preparing for upcoming tours, etc.?
I recently conducted Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Opera Lorraine in Nancy, France, this past May. This next season, I will be guest conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra in their 2014–15 seasons.
What are some of your hobbies outside of music or things that people might not know about you?
I am pretty athletic and like to bike and play tennis. I am also a lover of literature.
Could you talk about your time at CHQ in regard to developing as an artist? Also, can you share any fond memories of CHQ outside of your training?
Tim Muffitt was such a great mentor to me while I was there. After my program ended, he was always available and encouraging when I needed advice. CHQ is lucky to have him there! My best memory is assisting La bohème in the concert with Marlena Malas’ Voice Program and the student orchestra. I really wanted to conduct the opera myself, so after the real performance, I asked everyone to perform one more time with me conducting. I promised everyone pizza afterwards. All the singers and most of the orchestra spent a free evening playing La bohème with me conducting. How lucky to have such wonderful colleagues! I am also grateful to Kay Logan for sponsoring the fellowship that enabled me to go to CHQ. I got to see her a couple of times in later years when I performed in the D.C. area.
I am also lucky that I made one good friend outside of my musical training. Susan Laubach was my “Chautauqua mother” in 2005 and we are still in touch. She has been a wonderful and supportive friend since that summer.
I would say these three examples are what makes CHQ a great and unique place in a world that could use more people like I just described.
For more information on Kazem’s career, please visit his personal website at http://www.kazemabdullah.com
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