ASO, guest conductor Kazem Abdullah to cap Masterworks season with barn-burner ‘Symphonie Fantastique’

Kazem Abdullah guest-conducts the Arkansas Symphony in works by Hector Berlioz, Doreen Carwithen and Edward Elgar. (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Kazem Abdullah, who will be guest-conducting the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra this weekend, says Hector Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique" is one of his favorite pieces.

"'It's a tour de force, virtuosic, demonstrating the virtuosity of the players," he says. "It's a great barn-burner to end the season with."

Abdullah and the orchestra close out the sixth and final concert of the orchestra's 2022-23 Stella Boyle Smith Masterworks season with the massive symphonic showpiece at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Little Rock's Robinson Center Performance Hall.

The program also features pianist Samantha Ege as soloist in Doreen Carwithen's Concerto for Piano and Strings. Abdullah will open the concert with Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1, easily recognizable for the thousands of times it has been played for graduations.

Abdullah is stepping in, perhaps not quite at the last moment, but close, as a substitute for Matthew Kraemer, who was going to make his second appearance on the Arkansas Symphony podium — he had initially conducted the orchestra May 14-15, 2022 — as part of the "audition" process for the orchestra's vacant music director position. However, Kraemer recently took a job as music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic and withdrew his name from consideration.

Abdullah says, while it doesn't happen very often, "I've done some last-minute substitutions for concerts in the United States and Europe." As it happens, he got the call from Little Rock "for a week where I was free, and it's a great program."

The piano concerto on the program is a new work for him, and he's been learning it, "over the last week, slowly but surely," he says. "It's a difficult piece, but then most of my life has involved learning difficult pieces."

Should this weekend's audiences consider him a candidate for the permanent podium position? Orchestra officials only say that, as with the other guest conductors that have appeared here over the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, Abdullah is someone "the orchestra musicians wanted to hear."

Abdullah himself demurs, slightly: "Right now, I'm just interested in getting into a concert with the Arkansas Symphony," he says. "I'm glad to have the chance to work with them; I've worked with some of the musicians in other contexts." However, "if there's chemistry there, I'd be interested."

Abdullah has spent the last decade based in Germany, making his home in Nuremberg, and has been conducting orchestral concerts and operas throughout Europe and, occasionally, the United States. He was the Generalmusikdirektor in Aachen, Germany, from 2012-17. He was at one time an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, where he assisted with and prepared more than 20 operas, including Richard Wagner's entire four-opera "Ring of the Nibelungen" cycle and Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" and "Lulu." He made his Met debut in debut in 2009, conducting Christoph Willibald Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice"; he'll return there this fall helming Anthony Davis' "The Life and Times of Malcolm X."

This season he has been making his debuts with the Atlanta Symphony, Charlotte Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, Los Angeles Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "It's been fun to work with various American orchestras," he notes.

Trained as a clarinetist, he has performed as an orchestral musician, chamber musician and soloist.

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Ege says Carwithen's three-movement concerto, composed in 1948, "unlike a lot of music composed at the time," is "full of melody, action and drive."

Ege, also a musicologist who declares herself a scholar and devotee of Arkansas native Florence Price, would have been interested in playing Price's piano concerto with the orchestra, but "because Kathryn Walwyn performed it here last season," she shifted to this one, also by a Black woman. She's looking forward, maybe, to soon performing work "by more African-American composers with the Arkansas Symphony."

Price, she says, "has expanded my horizons — she's been a real inspiration to me."

She has been spending a lot of time in the archives at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville researching its collection of Price pieces and programming and recording a lot of Price's piano works; her debut album was titled "Four Women: Music for solo piano by Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland and Bonds" (released on Wave Theory Records in May 2018). She released "Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price" in March 2021 on the Lorelt label. And Price is also present on her latest album, 2022's "Black Renaissance Woman: Piano Music by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, Betty Jackson King, and Helen Hagan," also on Lorelt.

  photo  Pianist Samantha Ege solos in Doreen Carwithen's Concerto for Piano and Strings this weekend with the Arkansas Symphony. (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)  

Arkansas Symphony Masterworks

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Robinson Center Performance Hall, 426 W. Markham St. at Broadway, Little Rock

Who: Arkansas Symphony Orchestra; Samantha Ege, piano; Kazem Abdullah, guest conductor

What: Edward Elgar: "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1, op.39; Doreen Carwithen: Concerto for Piano and Strings; Hector Berlioz: "Symphonie Fantastique." Abdullah will take part in Concert Conversations an hour prior to each concert.

Tickets: $19-$77, $15 for college students and active-duty military, free for K-12 students with a paying adult using the Entergy Kids Ticket.

(501) 666-1761, Extension 1;