The Turkish Youth Philharmonic and friends join in an Island serenade

By John Shakespeare Dyson | September 22, 2020

Following my blog on Saturday, the much-anticipated concert on Büyükada – given by an assortment of young string-players from Turkey, the United Kingdom and Germany – duly took place at the San Pacifico Church that same evening, and was streamed online. The orchestra, conducted by Dr James Ross, played works by Peter Warlock, Claude-Achille Debussy, Ahmed Adnan Saygun and Arnold Schoenberg.

Here, once again, is a link to the video of the concert (the performance starts at 06:29):

The concert coincided with Hareketlilik Haftası (Mobility Week) – an event organised by the European Union with the aim of encouraging the reduction of harmful emissions. The reason for the choice of Büyükada as the venue now becomes clear: all forms of motor transport are forbidden on the island. (Earlier this year, even the horse-drawn carriages were withdrawn, following an outbreak of glanders, an infectious horse disease.) We hear brief addresses by Mr Erdem Gül, mayor of the Princes’ Islands, and by Ambassador Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, a German diplomat who was recently appointed Head of the EU Delegation to Turkey.

At 06:29 the concert recording begins with a welcoming ‘Hoş geldin!’ from Dr Ross, whose Turkish is much improved thanks to the fact that earlier this year he spent three months on the Princes’ Islands. Having come in March to give concerts, he was stranded there by the pandemic and resultant flight cancellations. Our attention might be forgiven for wandering to the interior decor of the church, and especially to the painting above the altar: the work of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista, it depicts the miracle-working Saint Pacificus of San Severino (1653–1721) flying over the Princes’ Islands, flanked by Saints Ignatius and Sophia. The San Pacifico Church was built by the Franciscans in the mid-1860s. Part of the cost of its construction was met by Ignazio Corpi, a Genoese merchant, and his wife Sofia. Ignazio Corpi was also responsible for the Palazzo Corpi in Meşrutiyet Caddesi, Tepebaşı. That building, which later did service as the American Embassy and Consulate, was the first diplomatic premises in Europe owned by the United States government.

Having taken in our sumptuous surroundings, we now give our attention to the first item on the menu. This aural hors d’oeuvre is Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, composed in 1926. The six brief pieces are based on tunes from Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie, a manual of Renaissance dances. Peter Warlock (nom-de-plume of Philip Heseltine, 1894–1930) was an early-music freak who spent many days at the British Museum studying and editing Elizabethan music after leaving his job as music critic of the Daily Mail. As a critic he was renowed for his acerbity (but in view of the fact that he was a Scorpio with combative Mars in first-house Aries – punch first, think later – this is perhaps not altogether surprising. As an author, meanwhile, he wrote the first-ever biography of Frederick Delius, including a study of the composer’s works. Delius had been the hero of Heseltine’s youth: in 1911, while a schoolboy at Eton College, he had been given leave of absence to travel to London for the first performance of Delius’s Songs of Sunset

There is a connection between Philip Heseltine and Dr James Ross, our conductor on Büyükada, in that both studied at Christ Church, Oxford. Heseltine spent a year there studying classics in 1913–14, and went to France to visit Delius at his home in Grez-sur-Loing during the Easter vacation. Being something of a drifter, however, he did not return to Oxford after the 1914 summer term, but went to live in London, where he got his job with the Daily Mail through the influence of Lady Emerald Cunard, a society hostess who had become Sir Thomas Beecham’s companion. Ross, by contrast, more than stayed the course at Christ Church: having received an MA in History and an MSt in Music, he went on to obtain his doctorate with a thesis on French opera. Here is his biography on Wikipedia.

These days Philip Heseltine, aka Peter Warlock, is renowned mostly for his songs. Apart from the Delius-inspired chromaticism, his style also shows the influence of Celtic culture, and like me, he was a Fauré fan. The songs are noted for the purity of their melodic lines, which are said to be capable of standing alone, without accompaniment. Here is one entitled Sleep:

Our composer’s life was marked by indulgence in alcohol and what medieval writers, who did not believe in mincing words, described as ‘venery’. Things ended badly, however: on December 17, 1930, after bolting the doors and windows of his Chelsea flat, Heseltine gassed himself. The poor man had always been subject to depression (his natal Mars being locked in a highly stressful opposition to artistic Venus and baleful Saturn, which are in exact conjunction. This combination of aspects is known to produce intense frustration, and it is therefore not surprising that before his suicide he had been complaining of a lack of creative inspiration). I do not wish to end this section of my review on an entirely negative note, however, and will add a rather touching detail: before turning on the gas, Heseltine put his young cat out of the room. 

Next up (at 18:55 in the recording) is a performance of Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane in which the solo part is very ably played by Ms Yonca Atar, a Turkish harpist. In researching her past exploits, I came across the following video of a concert by her in Kyrgyzstan, which I will share with you despite the dodgy sound quality:

Turkey seems to be producing a string (no pun intended) of fine harpists these days. In my blog on a concert at the Caddebostan Cultural Centre in April 2019, I remarked on the talents of Ms Merve Kocabeyler, who on that occasion performed this same work by Debussy – one of the kingpins of the highly limited harp repertoire. (I should add that this observation on my part is in no way intended to demean Ms Atar’s performance, which was impressive.)

The concert continues (at 30:07) with the Allegretto from Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s Partita for Solo Cello, played by Ms Lale Efendieva (whose surname is wrongly given in the credits as ‘Efendiev’ – ie, without the feminine ending). Ahmed Adnan Saygun is, to my mind, a quite outstandingly overrated composer. At the risk of wounding Turkish pride in a native son, I will offer the opinion that however laudable its message may be, his Yunus Emre Oratorio is incompetently orchestrated (everything being crowded together in the middle register), lacking in contrast, and boring. One wonders how Vincent d’Indy, his teacher of orchestration in Paris, ever gave him a pass mark. I once had a discussion on this subject with Dr Emre Aracı over milk puddings at a café in Nişantaşı. Dr Aracı is an expert on the composer, having written a book entitled Ahmed Adnan Saygun: Doğu-Batı Arası Müzik Köprüsü, published in 2001. On that occasion, I told him that if he really wished to enhance the composer’s reputation, he should re-orchestrate those parts of the Oratorio that can be salvaged (that is, about half of it) using his professional skills to plaster over the many and obvious cracks. Dr Aracı did not respond to my remarks on the orchestration, though he did crack a smile. I also feel compelled to record that he disputed my assertion that the work in question lacks contrast.     

I did not enjoy the cello piece, no doubt because of my ignoble prejudices. In an attempt to restore balance and fairness, however, I will point out that not everyone agrees with me about the work’s lack of appeal: a recording of it by the world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma is available on YouTube:

Yo-Yo Ma's intonation is not invariably spot-on in the above video, and neither is Ms Efendieva’s in the recording of the concert on Büyükada. Though I am not familiar with the instrument in question, I will hazard a guess that if a performer of Yo-Yo Ma’s standing cannot play the piece without producing foul notes, something must have been lacking in the composer’s familiarity with the technical limitations of the cello.

And so – with some relief – I pass on to the last item in the concert: Arnold Schoenberg’s tone-poem Verklärte Nacht (originally written for string sextet in 1899, but played here in the composer’s 1917 arrangement for string orchestra). The piece begins at 37:01, after a repeat of some of the Mobility Week introductory material. Having described this work in my blog on a concert given by Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists at Hagia Eirene during last year’s İKSV Festival, I shall not do so again. Instead, I will leave this task to Betsy Schwarm on the Encyclopedia Britannica website.

You will find that the orchestra’s intonation, though still questionable in the high register, is considerably better than it was in the Warlock. Having got into their stride, they produce a nice full-bodied sound, assisted by the church’s excellent acoustics. Frankly, I enjoyed their performance of Verklärte Nacht more than I did that of the Moscow Soloists last year – though admittedly the latter were hampered by the acoustics of the cavernous building they were playing in, and consequently sounded weak. Not only this, however, but they appeared to be playing by numbers, without emotional commitment. The young musicians in the concert on Büyükada, by contrast, give the impression that they are putting some feeling into the piece, and that always makes for enjoyable listening.

Many thanks to everyone involved in producing this concert – the official sponsors (the EU Delegation to Turkey, the Princes’ Islands Municipality and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality), the conductor, the musicians themselves, and whoever gave their kind permission for the use of the San Pacifico Church on Büyükada. Not forgetting, of course, the people responsible for the sound recording, the camerawork, the lighting and the film editing. How wonderful to have some music again! It almost makes one remember what it was like to be a human being. Further injections are needed, however, and these will shortly be forthcoming in the shape of the İKSV Istanbul Music Festival, of which there will soon be more in these hallowed columns. 

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