Lifting the mood

A review of the 2024 İKSV Istanbul Music Festival opening concert

By John Shakespeare Dyson | June 24, 2024

The 2024 İKSV Istanbul Music Festival – the 52nd in the series – opened with a concert at the Atatürk Cultural Centre on May 21. As usual, the proceedings began with speeches by administrators (including Mr Bülent Eczacıbaşı, Chairperson at the İKSV – the ‘Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts’) and various sponsors, followed by the distribution of awards. Mr Eczacıbaşı expressed special thanks to Borusan Holding, who finance the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and the Borusan Quartet, and are celebrating their 80th anniversary this year.

The lucky recipients of the awards for 2024 – if I wished to cause you pain, I would refer to them as the ‘awardees’ – were the young lady violinist Ilgın Top, the American composer Steve Reich (a new work by whom entitled Jacob’s Ladder was due to be performed at the Süreyya Opera House on June 8 – Mr Reich had sent his apologies for being unable to be present) and Cem Mansur, who conducted the orchestra for this concert. In his acceptance speech Mr Mansur reminded us of the fact that the İKSV Istanbul Music Festival is a cornerstone of our musical life. He went on to say that this festival shows us not just what Turkey is currently capable of, but what it will be capable of in the future. (This statement drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.)

The music then began with a performance by the Istanbul State Philharmonic Orchestra of the ballet music from Verdi’s opera Othello, with its Orientalist opening passage. Thank goodness the days when I would look forward with dread to this orchestra’s performances are over! I well remember a day about 18 years ago when (under the baton of Alexander Rahbari) they mangled the Azeri composer İlyas Mirzayev’s Istanbul Symphony so horribly that I was convinced that they would break down entirely and have to restart. Fortunately, by guess and by God, they pulled themselves back from the brink at every teetering. Now, thank heaven, they are a fully professional outfit whose entries are almost always well coordinated, and whose intonation is consistently accurate. I am particularly gratified to note that their accompanying skills, too, have radically improved – as we saw in the next item.

Giuseppe Verdi composed Othello, his penultimate opera, during the years 1884-86 after a long period of inactivity resulting from the success of his Aida in 1871. The fame and the financial rewards this latter work brought him had convinced its creator that the time had come to retire – as indeed Rossini had done after the success of his opera William Tell. In fact, it took a great deal of effort on the part of Arrigo Bolto (his librettist) and Giulio Ricordi (his publisher in Milan) to persuade Verdi to start work on Othello, and quite possibly it was only his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s plays that finally moved him to overcome years of unwillingness, inertia and prevarication, and accept the commission. When the opera received its first performance at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1887 it was a resounding success, and further performances followed in New York, London, Vienna and Paris.

The ballet music from Act III of Othello was composed for a performance in Paris in 1894 that was sung in French. In the recording below the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra are playing it under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. The opening sequence in the minor key is about as authentically ‘oriental’ as one could legitimately expect from a European composer. However, the gradual chromatic descent (which occurs for the first time at 0:19) is definitely not playable on ‘oriental’ instruments. But then, the audience in 1894 weren’t to know that.

The star of the İKSV Festival opening concert was indubitably the 15-year-old pianist İlyun Bürkev, who is currently studying at the Salzburg Mozarteum University under Prof. Pavel Gililov and has been described by the celebrated pianist Gülsin Onay as ‘my heiress’. She came onto the stage wearing a long, flowing red robe, and sat down to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor looking poised and confident. In reality, however, she must have been a trifle nervous, because she came in a little too early with that initial crashing chord – the one that is supposed to occur simultaneously with a similar outburst from the orchestra. I do not assign blame to anyone for this, however. A 15-year-old cannot be expected to possess the experience as a musician that would tell her when exactly to launch herself into the breach.

İlyun Bürkev, photographs Salih Üstündağ

Ms Bürkev’s technique was impressive, as befits a pupil of so eminent a figure as Prof. Gililov (whom I saw accompany the ‘Les Essences’ string quartet in a concert at the Süreyya Opera House in Kadıköy in September 2023 – see my blog entitled ‘Les Essences and Pavel Gililov: an exhilarating rhythmic treat’). She also evinced a pretty good sense of drama. In the second movement she seemed to have recovered from her nervous start. Her coordination with the orchestra was flawless – quite an achievement for a newcomer to the minefield of slow movement entries, which can so easily go all higgledy-piggledy (a somewhat outdated phrase meaning ‘all over the place’). Her cadenzas in both the first movement and the last went exceptionally well. If I had been her teacher I would have heaved a sigh of relief (this concerto is by no means tyro-friendly) and felt proud of her.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor was written in 1868, when the composer was a mere 24 years of age. It bears a similarity to the Piano Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann in that both works are in the same key, and in that each is the only piano concerto ever written by its composer. Grieg had heard Schumann’s concerto played by Clara Schumann (née Wieck) in Leipzig – where he had been a student at the Conservatory – in 1858, and had been greatly influenced by its syle. Furthermore, he already had a connection with Robert Schumann in that he had been taught the piano by the latter’s friend Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel. Grieg revised his concerto at least seven times, and it is the final version – completed only a few weeks before his death – that is most often played today. In the following performance his Piano Concerto in A minor is being played by the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, accompanied by the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse under the baton of Tugan Sokhiev. Despite the super-fast tempi in the first and third movements, Ms Buniatishvili appears to be enjoying herself hugely, which is nice to see.

An aside: Edvard Hagerup Grieg (1843-1907) was the great-grandson of a Scottish gentleman by the name of Alexander Greig who had left Scotland for a prolonged period of travel after the Battle of Culloden (1746), and had eventually settled in Bergen. Edvard’s father was the British Vice-Consul there. The surname ‘Greig’ was eventually ‘transitioned’ (no apology for this one – grin and bear it!) to better resemble an authentic Norwegian surname.

The final work on the programme on May 21 was the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), who at the time when he composed it was a 28-year-old professor at the Moscow Conservatory – and (like Verdi) an ardent Shakespeare fan. It was in fact Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), a composer Tchaikovsky liked and admired, who suggested that he should write a piece based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. (Balakirev was a highly influential figure on the Russian musical scene of those times who mentored Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He encouraged musical nationalism, thus extending the earlier work of Glinka.) Wikipedia gives us the following account of Balakirev’s – obviously substantial – input during the writing of Romeo and Juliet:

Tchaikovsky was having difficulties writing an opera entitled Undine, which he would eventually destroy. Though he complained ‘I’m completely burned out,‘ Balakirev persisted, as was his manner. Balakirev wrote suggestions about the structure of Romeo and Juliet, giving details of the type of music required in each section, and even opinions on which keys to use.

The work’s first performance in 1870 was not successful, and afterwards Balakirev wrote to Tchaikovsky with detailed suggestions as to how he might improve it. Wikipedia again:

The initial failure of Romeo and Juliet induced Tchaikovsky to fully accept Balakirev’s criticisms and rework the piece. It also forced Tchaikovsky to reach beyond his musical training and rewrite much of the music into the form known today. This included the choice of leaving the love theme out of the development section, saving its confrontation with the first theme (the conflict of the Capulets and Montagues) for the second half of the recapitulation.

In 1880, ten years after these revisions had been made, Tchaikovsky once more set to work on the piece, completely rewriting the ending, and it is this version that is heard in concert halls today. In the recording below, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture is being played by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the legendary conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002). The first theme (depicting the run-ins between the Capulets and the Montagues) is as rambunctious as one could wish – this one begins working up to a climax at 12:19. Meanwhile, the ‘love theme’ that unbuttons itself at 14:07 is suitably slushy. This tune is generally thought to be one of the best Tchaikovsky ever wrote, if not one of the best of all time. After all, its composer was a Venus-ruled Taurus with a feisty Sun-Mars conjunction, and his Venus (bless her unselfish, bountiful boots!) was conjunct intensity-merchant Pluto.

The Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra was impressive in the Tchaikovsky. They managed the slowings-down and speedings-up without a hitch, and coordination in the woodwind department – always a risky area – was spot on. Much credit, therefore, must go to their conductor.

To return to the subject of the awards distributed before the concert began, the one given to Cem Mansur was in my opinion long overdue. (Let it not be thought that in saying this I am swayed by the fact that Mr Mansur and I received training at the same institution. He began his advanced conducting course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London in 1976 – the year I left after three years of part-time tuition in piano and composition there.) The award he received at the İKSV Istanbul Music Festival opening concert was given to him (let us remember) in recognition of his 40-year-long career in classical music both in Turkey and in Britain, and in recognition of the outstanding services he has rendered to young musicians in Turkey by founding, organising and conducting youth orchestras.

This last activity is of the utmost importance from the point of view of the future of classical music in Turkey. The Turkish State has no official youth orchestra; instead, it is left to private individuals to provide this essential service. One of these private individuals is Mr Mansur, and we should all be grateful to him for everything he has done, and continues to do, to encourage young Turkish musicians in their chosen career, provide them with vital experience in the matter of orchestral playing (an opportunity that is not available outside Turkey’s major cities) and give them a hearing.

In my review of a concert by his Turkish Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (Türkiye Gençlik Filarmoni Orkestrası) in September 2018 – note that I do not use the word National in its title as it is an unofficial body – I wrote the following:

The Turkish Youth Orchestra is in fact entirely Mr Mansur’s creation. In 2007 he began scouring the state conservatoires (of which there are currently about 12 in various cities around the country) for promising young talents. Ever since then, in the first two months of each year he has held auditions not only in the major cities but also in Mersin, Edirne and places in between to identify suitable candidates aged between 16 and 22, and has then invited the best of the best to come to Istanbul in the summer for rehearsals, followed by concerts.
         And indeed, some of these concerts have been in foreign parts. The orchestra performed at the Konzerthaus in Berlin four times between 2008 and 2017, for instance, and the concert in 2017 was broadcast on the Arte TV channel. Other European venues have been Rome, Milan, Verona, Ravello, Florence, Bologna, Vienna, Linz, Bonn, Essen, Dortmund, Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava and Brussels. In 2014 they performed in Tosca in Sicily, and the following year they played La Bohème at the Royal Opera House in London. Not an outfit to be sneezed at, then.

I still have not forgotten this orchestra’s sizzling performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No 5 at that concert in September 2018, and the following year I enjoyed hearing them play Beethoven’s Symphony No 8 with warmth and a good deal of youthful verve. During the pandemic, of course, their activities had to be suspended; now, however, they are back with a vengeance. The Turkish Youth Philharmonic Orchestra are opening their 2024 season at Sabancı University on July 7. Then, after extensive rehearsals, they are to give a performance at the Atatürk Cultural Centre on July 24. The next day they are due to go on a European tour that is to include their first concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. This will be followed by performances in Italy, ending with a concert in Berlin on August 10. Readers are advised not to miss this outfit’s concerts, whether at the Atatürk Cultural Centre or elsewhere. Cem Mansur’s statement during the award ceremony that the İKSV Istanbul Music Festival shows us not just what Turkey is currently capable of, but what it will be capable of in the future, is equally true of the orchestra that he himself has founded, nurtured and brought to exuberant life.

And so I left the opening concert of the 52nd İKSV Istanbul Music Festival in an optimistic mood – in spite of the fact that the acoustics in the auditorium had not permitted me to hear as much of the music as I would have wished. Much gratitude is due to the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts for continuing to engulf us sound-freaks – might I perhaps say ‘soundies’ without causing too much pain? – in goodies. (I myself am especially grateful to Ms Ayşegül Öneren at the İKSV for providing me with tickets to the various beanos.) Long may these festivals continue, the bassoons to bellow, and the clarinets to clamour!

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