Cannonballs and cadenzas

The 2020 İKSV Music Festival defiantly opens

By John Shakespeare Dyson | October 8, 2020

‘Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”’

It may seem like an unimaginable impossibility, but the 2020 İKSV Istanbul Music Festival is now under way. Yes, it really is! The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), with the support of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, has somehow managed to dish up their annual dollop of delight in spite of circumstances that could not be less favourable. Postponed from June – its usual time – to September and October, the festival is being held online this year. The concerts have been filmed at historical venues in Istanbul and various cities in Europe, and are now available for audiences to enjoy on their screens.

Concert venues in Istanbul include the Theodosius Cistern, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, the Khedive’s Palace, the Tophane-i Amire Centre for Culture and the Arts, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit or Saint Esprit Cathedral (in Harbiye), the Surp Ohan Vosgeperan Armenian Catholic Church (in Taksim) and the Süreyya Opera House. Other concerts have been recorded in various cities in Belgium, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

Those who wish to do so may watch the concerts at the address below, which also provides the programme and the dates between which each concert is available. The opening concert is now offline, but all the others will be online until dates ranging from October 19 to November 5.

My first foray into this year’s festival was the concert given by a group bearing the name the Festival Orchestra and their conductor Cem Mansur at the Tophane-i Amire, a building dating from 1743 that did service in the Ottoman era as a foundry for cannonballs. In his introductory speech, Mr Mansur tells us that the ensemble was formed especially for the digital festival, and that its members do not work for any state institution. Most of them, he says, are members of the Turkish Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. I did notice, however, that the leader of the first violins is Mr Olgu Kızılay, a former member of the Borusan Quartet. Bringing in an experienced professional was, I feel, a wise choice. The other players, meanwhile, do not look at all like teenagers to me, so I cannot help wondering if they are in fact former, rather than current, members of the Youth Orchestra.

From the very first notes I was not just agreeably surprised but actually shocked by the quality of the listening experience this concert provides. Not only are the playing and conducting uniformly excellent, but so is the recording quality. No doubt the acoustics of the building will have played a part in this. The sound created is far, far better than we are used to hearing in the usual Istanbul concert halls, and I very much look forward to future performances at this venue. I cannot tell, of course, how much of the finished product is due to the acoustics of the Ottoman building, and how much to the quality of the equipment and the skill of the sound technicians. What I can be sure of, however, is that although it feels as if you are only two feet from each instrument, and can almost pick out each individual player’s voice, the overall effect is rounded, balanced and satisfying – a banquet of string sound.  

Mr Mansur makes some introductory remarks before each item, giving us a briefing on the composer and the background to the piece. Thus for the most part I will not be supplying background information on the works performed, as this has already been done for me, and in a manner that is at the same time thorough and succinct.

The concert proper begins at 03:45 with Sibelius’s Andante Festivo. I do like a booming bass with plenty of oomph, and this tastebud is massaged in the sixth minute, from 05:39 onwards. An added plus is the well-coordinated ending. The Andante Festivo is followed (at 08:54) by a much earlier Sibelius piece – the Romance in C Major. This is a work that is constantly stopping and starting, and the ability of the musicians to come in together after each pause is proof that they have had more than sufficient experience of playing as an ensemble. (I believe the rehearsals for this concert were long and exhaustive, and it shows.) The bass entry at 11:44 is followed by a passage that evinces a high degree of emotional commitment – an indispensable ingredient of a good performance.

This part of the piece also has some interesting harmonies that remind me of the composer’s Fourth Symphony, which is one of my personal favourites. Many people find this symphony too bleak, and indeed it has much less immediate appeal than his second (justly praised by Mr Mansur), but I find Sibelius’s unwillingness to compromise over his portrayal of the harsh landscapes of the far north a sign of modernity. Ironically, this is precisely the quality that the composer himself would have been least gratified to be praised for. Here, as an aside, is Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony played by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:

Item number three in the concert in Istanbul (this begins at 16:42) is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (1977), written in his ‘Tintinnabuli’ style – which is very well summarised by Mr Mansur in his introductory remarks. I will make an exception to my rule here and supply some informative links. The following piece by Tom Service in The Guardian gives a good overview of Arvo Pärt’s development, and tells you what is meant by tintinnabulation. For those interested in exploring the works of this important modern composer, the links given in this article are worth following:

Next, take a look at a piece by John Henken on the Hollywood Bowl website that is specifically about Fratres, and the work’s (more technical) Wikipedia entry.

In addition to the version for string orchestra and percussion that we hear from the Istanbul Festival Orchestra, there is an arrangement of Fratres with added violin solo. The following recording by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra features this solo part played by Sergej Krylov:

My personal preference, however, is for the sparser version, which gives a purer, more ‘spaced-out’ feeling. In the performance at the Tophane-i Amire I find the well-controlled intonation of the violins in the high register particularly pleasing. I also like the way the piece ends, becoming subdued at 24:11 and dying down to mousey-quiet at 25:18. Listen, too, to the silence that ensues when the sound finally dies away at 26:26 after an impressive rendition of this highly atmospheric piece.

Astor Piazzolla’s Melody in A Minor, the next item on the menu, takes us from the sublime to the secular – and here, once again, I feel that some introduction to the music of a remarkable composer is called for. Born in 1921 to Italian émigré parents in Mar del plata, a town south of Buenos Aires, Piazzolla spent most of his childhood in New York. On his eighth birthday his father (a lover of Argentina’s traditional tango music) presented him with a bandoneon – a bellow instrument that relies on the same technology as the accordion. Luckily for us, a concert pianist moved into a neighbouring apartment, thus exposing the young Astor to the music of Bach. He later said:

‘At that age I didn’t know who Bach was, but I felt as if I had been hypnotised. It is one of the great mysteries of my life. I don’t know if it was Johann Sebastian Bach or one of his sons. I believe I have bought all Bach’s recorded works, but I could never find that music again. That pianist practised nine hours a day: three hours of technique in the morning, three hours of Bach in the afternoon, and three at night, trying out repertoire for his concerts. He was Hungarian. His name was Béla Wilda, and soon he became my teacher.’

He was in fact a pupil of Rachmaninov. This timely introduction to classical music resulted in Astor adapting Bach to the bandoneon. (In a previous blog, I remarked how Bach sounds good in every possible medium, even when played on conch shells under water.) When the Piazzolla family moved back to Mar del plata in 1936, Astor heard a tango orchestra on the radio for the first time, and it was this experience that gave him the urge to move to Buenos Aires by himself and become a tango musician – an ambition that he was to fulfil two years later. There, apart from playing in various tango orchestras and working as an orchestral arranger, he also studied composition. In 1953, having won first prize in a competition, he spent a year studying counterpoint, harmony and pastiche composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She told him that although everything he brought to her was well done, she couldn’t find ‘the true Piazzolla’ in his works. Astor, ashamed of his past, had not told her of his background as a tango musician:

‘Nadia looked into my eyes and asked me to play one of my tangos at the piano. So I confessed to her that I played the bandoneon; I told her she shouldn’t expect a good piano player because I wasn’t. She insisted: “It doesn’t matter, Astor, play your tango.” And I started out with ‘Triunfal’. When I finished, Nadia took my hands in hers and with that English of hers, so sweet, she said: “Astor, this is beautiful. I like it a lot. Here is the true Piazzolla – do not ever leave him.” It was the great revelation of my musical life.’

On returning to Argentina, Piazzolla formed his own group, the Buenos Aires Octet, and began to develop his own compositional style. I will now quote from an article entitled Approaching Piazzolla’s Music, by Marcus Löfdahl of the University of Gothenburg (link below):

With influences from classical music, Piazzolla used techniques that were not traditional in tango music. He applied a contrapuntal way of thinking and expanded the formal structures of tango music by processing thematic material. From Bach’s legacy, for example, he used the fugue technique, layered voices, sequences and pedal lines as compositional tools. Influenced by Bartok, Stravinsky and Ravel, he applied extended harmonies and orchestration techniques that were not in traditional tango music.

So it seems Astor was no greenhorn in the matter of musical composition. His Melody in A Minor, which begins at 27:52 in our concert, opens with a gorgeous passage from the violas and cellos. Then, at 30:19, there is a dertli (‘troubled’) solo from Olgu Kızılay, the leader of the first violins. As Mr Baudelaire so aptly put it, ‘Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige.’ (‘The violin quivers like an afflicted heart.’)  

I regret that I am unable to say much about the piece that follows – Joaquin Turina’s La Oración del Torero (‘The Bullfighter’s Prayer’) – except that it begins at 32:43, almost before Mr Mansur has finished introducing it, and that the orchestra play it very well, especially in the part that begins at 35:45 after an ever-so-slightly ragged pizzicato. The reason for my silence is that I am highly averse to bullfighting. I would, however, recommend an account of the work by Orrin Howard on the Hollywood Bowl website, followed by an article by Elizabeth Dalton that describes the moment when the composer received his inspiration to write it:

As an antidote to any enthusiasm Mr Turina’s piece may have aroused for the practice of bullfighting, I will now present a video showing a bull that has been rescued from the arena. I very much hope that the current transit of Uranus, bringer of freedom, through the sign of Taurus will bring an end to this unnecessary suffering. May our bovine brothers be freed from their trauma, and be led into green pastures to munch contentedly for the rest of their natural lives!

And so we come to the last item on the programme, Giacomo Puccini’s Chrysanthemums (it starts at 42:36). Mr Mansur begins by dedicating the piece to the victims of the pandemic, and I am put in mind of the very moving performance of Mozart’s Requiem that I attended at the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi in Taksim in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake. The person in whose memory Chrysanthemums was composed was in fact the Duke of Aosta, a member of the House of Savoy who became King Amadeo I of Spain in 1870, at the age of 25, but abdicated after three years and returned to Italy after declaring the Spanish people ‘ungovernable’. The events surrounding this work’s composition are described in uncomplicated terms in this account from the Musical Musings website (it says ‘Posted by Alan Beggerow’ at the bottom, and I presume Mr Beggerow is in fact the author):

A fuller biographical background to Chrysanthemums, meanwhile, is given in an article by Elizabeth Dalton.

On the subject of Puccini, I would like (if I am to be allowed a modicum of irreverence, and in the hope that humour will not be considered out of place) to recall a scene from one of the Wallace & Gromit ‘claymation’ films that appeared on British television from 1989 onwards. In Wallace’s car there is a selection of CDs designed to appeal to the tastes of Gromit, his faithful and long-suffering dog. Two of them are entitled The Hound of Music and Poochini.

And so I express my gratitude to all concerned in the creation of the 2020 İKSV Istanbul Music Festival – from the sponsors, organisers and administrators to the musicians and conductors, not forgetting the people who put the lights in place, those who recorded the concerts, the security personnel and the people who drove minibuses and carried chairs in and out of concert halls. They have all done us a great service by keeping us attached to our musical lifeline at a time when it was sorely needed.

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