Conductor Kazem Abdullah living his dream come true

Conductor Kazem Abdullah
Conductor Kazem Abdullah
Photo by Pittsburgh Symphony
| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 7:52 p.m.

Young American conductor Kazem Abdullah is having the time of his life. At 33, he is looking forward to his second season as general music director for the city of Aachen, in western Germany, where he's responsible for both operatic and symphonic performance.

“I just did the Mozart Requiem in Aachen Dom, one of the oldest cathedrals in the world,” he says. “When you go in, you're blown away by the magic of it. What a dream come true to do such a masterpiece in an appropriate space, for an American having grown up in the Midwest.”

Abdullah makes his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra debut at concerts May 10 and 11 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. He'll conduct Johannes Brahms' “Tragic Overture “and Paul Hindemith's “Mathis der Maler Symphony” on the first half of the concert.

Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, who made her local debut two years ago, will play Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto after intermission. She's 25 and has already made more than a half-dozen recordings on Duetsche Grammophon and Decca.

Abdullah began studying music at 10, playing piano and clarinet. He got the conducting bug in graduate school after earning his bachelor's degree in clarinet from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

“I was studying at USC and had the chance to conduct a lot of music. I made a tape for the conducting program at the Aspen Festival that summer. The experience at Aspen made me think this is something I could do for real,” he says. “I had an idea from when I was 12 or 13 about conducting but didn't think it practical. It may sound easy, but there are many bumps and struggles along the way.”

He's received encouragement and support from some of the world's leading conductors, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, for whom he played clarinet with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Fla., and James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where Abdullah received favorable notice in The New York Times for his 2009 debut leading “Orpheus and Euridice.”

After Abdullah won the Solti Foundation U.S. 2010 Career Assistance Award, he was invited to conduct his first concert in Aachen. Fortunately, he had studied German in college. Then, he was invited to return the next year to conduct Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera “Don Giovanni” and another orchestral concert.

He was hired after his second set of performances in Aachen. His predecessors as general music director include three great conductors: Herbert von Karajan, Fritz Busch and Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Abdullah is set to conduct four operas — “Fidelio,” “Rusalka” and “Don Carlo,” plus the world premiere of “Princess on the Ice,” by Anno Schreier — in Aachen during the 2013-14 season, the second year in his five-year contract. His symphonic repertoire will include a couple of symphonies by Gustav Mahler, all three Images by Claude Debussy and the Cello Concerto of Witold Lutoslawski.

“It's interesting to come to a new country and take on new responsibilities,” Abdullah says. “I wanted to be a music director somewhere and am very fortunate for it to be in a great city like Aachen with a rich cultural tradition. It's a great opportunity.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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