Avrasya Orchestra and İdil Biret

By John Shakespeare Dyson | March 14, 2020

On Wednesday (March 11) I attended a concert given by the Avrasya Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Rengim Gökmen, at the Zorlu Performance Arts Center. This was part of a series entitled Vestel Gururla Yerli Konserleri, organised jointly by the Performance Arts Center and ‘BKM’, which I assume stands for ‘Beşiktaş Kültür Merkezi’ – the Beşiktaş Cultural Centre – and was intended to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. 

I was interested to see that the great majority of the members of the Avrasya Philharmonic Orchestra, an outfit I had never heard of before, were Turkish; one of the few exceptions was Oleksandr Samoylenko, the leader of the first violins. I was more familiar with their conductor, Rengim Gökmen, who is Musical Director of the Presidential Symphony Orchestra in Ankara – and also supervisor of the Karşıyaka Municipal Chamber Orchestra in İzmir, founded in 2015.

The first item on the programme was Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No 3, composed for the 1806 production of his opera Fidelio. ‘Leonora’ is in fact the name of the opera’s heroine: she disguises herself as a male prison guard named ‘Fidelio’ in order to rescue her husband from the prison in which he has been incarcerated for some political offence. The following description by Chris Myers (from the ‘Redlands Symphony’ website) gives you the background: https://www.redlandssymphony.com/pieces/leonore-overture-no-3

My initial impression of the orchestra was a positive one: co-ordination was as good as anyone has the right to expect in the first minute of a concert, and the intonation in the woodwind department was spot on (I find this to be a fairly good indicator of whether an orchestra is going to be pleasurable to listen to or not). When the second theme got off the ground, the accompaniment did not lag behind the melody (another testing ground), and the flute solo – echoed, aided and abetted by the bassoon – was very nicely played. In the final presto romp the string department showed great agility, the back desks of each department performing with the same degree of speed and accuracy as their more prominently-positioned colleagues. Aha, I thought – so far, all tests passed with flying colours.

Here is a performance of the Leonora Overture No 3 by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein (who is difficult to recognise as on this occasion he is sporting a beard – we see a lot of it in the course of the video). The second theme, introduced by the horns, starts at 06:50, and at 06:58 the part I referred to earlier as a testing ground for the accompanying instruments begins. At 07:38 there is a syncopated passage that seems to foreshadow Brahms (it recurs at 12:49 and 14:50), and the flute-and-bassoon duet that gave me so much pleasure in the Avrasya Orchestra’s performance starts at 10:51:

Then followed Beethoven's Symphony No 7, written in 1812. This work is in four movements, of which only the second is anything short of jubilant in mood. It is amazing how the composer succeeded in overcoming the angst generated by his increasing deafness to produce such upbeat stuff: the last two movements are a double dose of euphoria.

By contrast, the melancholic second movement, with its simple but affecting theme – accompanied (the second time it comes around, and subsequently) by wide-sweeping cello arpeggios to emphasise the tragic mood – might be mistaken for the work of another composer entirely: it is a stand-alone masterpiece. I recommend those afflicted by virus paranoia, the perennial perfidies of politics and general end-of-winter gloom to listen to it, have a weep if they will, and reflect on the nobility of the human spirit. Have a generous supply of tissues ready, but do not sink too deep into the Slough of Despond as there is a silver lining: you may well find that the experience of listening to this piece has such a cathartic effect on you that you are prompted to cancel your next appointment with your therapist, thus saving yourself some money.

This performance of the whole symphony is by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Iván Fischer. If I may be excused for sticking my neck out a little (and I can only hope there are no musicologists around to administer a rap on my knuckles with a tuning fork), the double-bass figure at 13:15 – which goes first one semitone above, then one semitone below, C sharp – seems to me to prefigure the theme of the second movement, with its minimal step-by-step progressions hovering around one note. This figure, amplified by the cellos, then serves to ramp up the drama until Beethoven is ready to unleash the brass: the horns do the honours from 13:54 onwards, bursting their buttons at 14:06. It may be an ex-horn-player’s hubris, but there really is nothing like a horn fanfare to conclude a piece – something that Sibelius (to name just one example) does to great effect at the end of the scherzo of his sixth symphony.

In the recording below, notice how at 24:04 – at the end of the second movement, which dies away with that daringly novel suspension starting with a major sixth above the tonic – the conductor gives everyone time to extricate themselves from the doldrums and ready themselves for the ecstatic third movement. I like the way he wags his head from side to side with a happy smile on his face:

And now, for those unable to don any other emotional footwear than their weepy wellies, here is the second movement on its own played by the Wiener Philharmoniker. The conductor, once again, is Leonard Bernstein:

And speaking of Mr Bernstein, here is a video of him talking about Beethoven’s sixth and seventh symphonies. At 05:03, as he is finishing his remarks on the sixth, he launches into a discussion of Beethoven’s melodies that then goes on to focus on the second movement of the seventh. I would entirely agree that this is one of the places where the composer best displays his ability to create a piece of music out of next to nothing; I would add the reservation, however, that in his deeply romantic violin concerto Beethoven proves that he does indeed deserve some credit as a melodist – if indeed the concerto was his creation, and not that of some angelic being by which he was temporarily possessed. Anyway, here is Mr Bernstein’s lecture:

I must preface my observations on the performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony by the Avrasya Philharmonicwith the admission that this is one of my favourite pieces of orchestral music, so my prejudices on the matter may very well colour my judgement. Yes, the performance did give me great pleasure, but this was not entirely due to my predilection for the work: it must also be said that Rengim Gökmen conducted it very well indeed, and that the orchestra responded fully to his skilful direction. In the first movement, the unison entries by the woodwind and horns were crisp and accurate. In the second, the dangerous pizzicato passage at the end did not degenerate into raggedness – any lapse in concentration by the strings here can have dire results. In the third and fourth, the tutti entries (from cold) were perfectly co-ordinated. The brass section, in particular, shone; my only criticism is that the timpanist occasionally failed to strike while the iron was hot, or else anticipated the beat.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 with İdil Biret as soloist. Born in Ankara in 1941, Ms Biret received her first piano lessons from Mithat Fenmen (1916–82), who had himself attended the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris; there, he was taught the piano by Alfred Cortot, and harmony and composition by Nadia Boulanger, before returning to Turkey to teach at the Ankara State Conservatoire. No doubt her Turkish mentor’s Paris background had some influence on Ms Biret’s choice of this city as her own eventual destination: in 1948, a special law passed by the Turkish National Assembly permitted her to be sent to pursue her studies at the Ecole Normale de Musique under the supervision of Nadia Boulanger. At the time, she was only eight years old. Her piano teachers during her stay in Europe included Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff.

İdil Biret’s career since then has been spectacular: among the many awards with which she has been honoured, perhaps the one given by the Polish government in 2007 for her recordings and worldwide performances of Chopin – the Krzyzem Kawalerskim Orderu Zaslugi or ‘Medal for Outstanding Service’ – is the most meaningful. The President of Poland came to Turkey especially for the presentation.

I have been unable to find a video on YouTube of İdil Biret playing the whole of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto (the so-called ‘Emperor Concerto’) all in one go, but here are three recordings of her playing the individual movements. In them, she is accompanied by the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit:


At this point, I must acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the lady sitting next to me during the performance at the Zorlu Center for submitting me to a severe test of spiritual grit: she demonstrated her respect for the eminent musician performing on the stage in front of her by constantly playing with her two smartphones throughout the second and third movements. First one of the devices was fished out of her bag, lovingly fondled, and then replaced; then the other. Sometimes both were brought out for proskinesis and electronic communion. At no point did she leave them alone for more than one and a half minutes. I steeled myself and did not say or do anything to disturb her adoration of her idols, but after the first movement, my enjoyment of the concerto was ruined. In vain did the pre-concert announcement state quite plainly that the light from a telephone can disturb other members of the audience: this lady was quite immune to appeals for considerate behaviour. (After all, what can a poor wee lassie do if the alien implants in her brain are screaming for their fix of electromagnetic stimulation?) It was a most salutary reminder that patience and fortitude are required at all times and in all circumstances, and that Art is but the handmaiden of Technology.

The audience applauded İdil Biret with great enthusiasm at the end of the concerto. The high regard in which she is held in her native county was palpable in this display of appreciation; and that high regard is, of course, fully deserved.

I cannot conclude without registering my gratitude to the Avrasya Philharmonic Orchestra, and to their excellent conducter Rengim Gökmen, for a most satisfying performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. This is an outfit I hope to hear again at the first opportunity.

Posted in Music & Performing Arts, - Classical Music, - Musical Shares
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