Marat Bisengaliev: Bowing to the north

A glass violin, sitting nonchalantly in a bungalow door window, is all that betrays what must be Oxspring’s best-kept secret. For, of anywhere in the world, it is this sleepy corner of South Yorkshire that Kazakh violinist and recording artist Marat Bisengaliev has decided to call home.

It’s a surprisingly modest home, too, for a man whose music has been played in space (aboard the shuttle Columbia, in 1999). But perhaps the view of Oxpring’s voluptuous hills, bridged by its yawning viaduct, is adequate recompense. “We lived in Clayton West before Oxpring,” says Marat, 48. “But it’s a much less romantic place. The pity is I don’t spend much time here.”

Recently back from Hong Kong when we speak, Marat is a difficult man to pin down. And, although he has lived in England for almost 20 years, he admits there is not a lot keeping him here. Except – bizarrely, you might think – the weather. “My wife is from Nice and constantly moans about it,” Marat jokes, “but I always enjoy it. Believe me, when you come back from minus 20 in Moscow and the humidity of Tokyo and Mumbai, the first thing you notice when you get off the plane in England is you can breathe.”

Marat was born in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), spending his early years in the neighbouring Kyrgyz SSR, where his father was a district financial manager. He gave up that cushy job when Marat was six so his son could study violin at the Kazakh capital Alma-Ata – a prestigious centre of Soviet education.

Marat’s introduction to Yorkshire came around twenty years later at the Moscow Conservatoire, where he met the woman who would go on to become his first wife. The two fell in love and, as she performed for Opera North, they settled in Leeds. But the constant travel Marat says has so enriched his life proved too much of a strain on the marriage and, after seven years, they divorced. “I’m out quite a lot, things happen and, unfortunately, she found someone else,” he says. “After that I went on a little odyssey around England.”

His first stop was London but Marat says he found it difficult to cope with the Big Smoke, turning instead to a radical solution involving closed eyes, a map and his finger. It was less than successful. “I ended up in Market Harborough,” he says. “Which turned out to be a real cultural desert.” Returning to Yorkshire, Marat met his current wife, Vassilia, during a spell in Halifax and the couple decided God’s Own County was where they belonged.

“We really like the surroundings here, the centrism and the closeness to places like Sheffield and Manchester. It makes it quite easy for me to go to concerts in Scotland and the south. It’s almost the ideal spot.” Although his work takes him all over the world and, despite now calling England his home, Marat keeps a house and a flat in Kazakhstan. He takes his heritage very seriously and says he even played a part in ‘killing’ the Borat character. “Kazakhstan, fortunately or unfortunately, is known because of ‘Borat,’” he says. “One of the reasons Sacha Baron Cohen stopped doing the next one is because I became good friends with his brother, Erran, who is a composer.

“He understood he had chosen the wrong country – if you went to Kazakhstan, you would be surprised by the high level of culture. On the other hand, he brought me more fame – English people say any publicity is good publicity and now I know that’s very true.” Marat then picks up his violin, takes his bow, and we are away

This feature was originally published by Mosaic magazine.