Sweet music of the French Palace

By John Shakespeare Dyson | July 8, 2022

On Monday 20 June I attended a concert entitled ‘Mare Nostrum’ at what is known in Turkish as Fransız Sarayı (‘French Palace’), the French Consulate and Ambassadorial Residence in Beyoğlu. There is an entrance to this diplomatic complex in Nuru Ziya Sokak (the side street that leaves İstiklal Caddesi opposite the Odakule building), but concert-goers were redirected from there to an alternative entrance in Tomtom Kaptan Sokak, the steeply-ascending street on which the Italian Lycée and Italian Consulate-General are situated. Walking further down Nuru Ziya Sokak, I passed on my left the house where in 1847 Franz Liszt stayed when he came to Istanbul at the invitation of Sultan Abdülmecit. At that time, the house was owned by Alexandre Commendiger, a piano-maker, and it now bears a plaque commemorating the event.

The view from the gardens of the ‘French Palace’ is reputed to be superb, but as it was a cloudy evening, the Bosphorus was visible only in imagination. Quelle dommage, one might have sighed, but the garden was a delightful location, and after negotiating a winding path through it I arrived at last at the place where the stage had been set up. I discovered this to be a terrace overlooking Tomtom Kaptan Sokak, very close to the French Law Court (the building that has the words LOIS – JUSTICE – FORCE carved in stone on its façade). The proximity of this admonitory message was an encouraging sign, signifying as it did that no laxity was to be permitted with regard to performance standards. I looked around for law-enforcement officers armed with tuning forks, but (probably wisely) they did not identify themselves.

Completed in 1847, the French diplomatic complex underwent a thorough restoration during the years 1908-1913; apart from the consulate buildings themselves, it also includes the French Institute for Anatolian Studies and Library, plus a church. (The law court, by the way, was where in the late Ottoman era, citizens of Western European states who lived in Istanbul were tried according to the laws of their native countries.)

The buildings were designed by the architect Pierre-Léonard Laurécisque (1797-1860). All the information I have been able to discover about his life is contained in this short video (in Turkish) from the TRT. It tells us that while he was in Istanbul, the poor man lost his wife and small child in an epidemic:



Laurécisque’s tombstone in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris is a highly unusual one, with many fascinating features. Here is a website with some photographs: https://paris-bise-art.blogspot.com/2012/07/le-tombeau-de-pierre-leonard-laurecisque.html

Still on the subject of visuals, there is a fine article on the French diplomatic complex by Patricia Daunt in Cornucopia No 5. It is accompanied by some wonderful photographs of the Palais de France by Fritz von der Schulenburg; these and other photographs are included in Ms Daunt’s book The Palace Lady’s Summerhouse, which was published by Cornucopia Books in 2017 (ISBN 978-09957566-0-1).

There being no restriction as to where one sat, I chose a spot close to where one of the many beautiful trees in the garden had been adorned with lights. It looked like a species of fir, but with perpendicular hanging branches. Though not as spectacular as the enormous Maidenhair Tree I once saw in the glasshouses of the Edinburgh Botanic Garden (this tree also had long, hanging branches, and there was a walkway that allowed one to view it from above), it was still a most decorous addition to the environment. Spots of rain made themselves felt, and I wondered whether the price of this musical entertainment was to be a thorough soaking; however, some deity intervened, and the threatened shower did not materialise.

The proceedings began with a welcoming address by Son Excellence Monsieur Olivier Gauvin, the French Consul-General in Istanbul. He informed us that the phrase ‘Mare Nostrum’ (Latin for ‘Our Sea’) had been chosen as the title of the concert as it refers to the Mediterranean, the sea that links France with Turkey. He then made the point that historically speaking, the two countries have long enjoyed good relations. And indeed this is perfectly true: it was the French government, for instance, that supplied the members of the Ottoman Dynasty with French passports when all 155 of them were exiled in 1924, having been given Turkish passports valid only for one year and forbidden ever to return to their native land.

The three musicians – French accordion-player Richard Galliano, Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren – then made their appearance. Monsieur Galliano soon proved himself to be an accordionist of consummate skill: there seemed to be no musical effect he could not coax from the instrument. During the second item, the birds in the garden set up a frenetic twittering (occasioned, no doubt, by some avian domestic dispute); it all but drowned out the performance on stage, but interruptions of this kind are forgivable – welcome, even – during an outdoor concert.

At one point, Monsieur Galliano abandoned his squeeze-box and took up a mouth organ, producing a sound as melodious as his accordion tone had been, but without (of course) the accompanying harmonies. The next piece was an accordion-and-trumpet duet with lots of trumpet solos; thanks to some adventurous chords from the accordion and the superbly smoky trumpet-playing, this number was one of my favourites. All the works on the programme were by the musicians themselves, and it was no doubt Jan Lundgren who was responsible for the item that followed – a Swedish folk song. It ended with a very, very long trumpet note, and we all marvelled at Paolo Fresu’s lung capacity.

One aspect of the concert that I particularly enjoyed was that each performer spoke a different language: Richard Galliano addressed us in French, Paolo Fresu in Italian, and Jan Lundgren in English. It was a long time since I had been in a French-speaking environment, and having spent my teenage years studying Racine, Balzac, Camus and Sartre, and my leisure hours reading Rimbaud, I found it a refreshing experience.

As the concert progressed and the natural light became dimmer and dimmer, the electric lights in the trees produced increasingly magical effects. A flock of birds flew overhead squawking madly; a posse of scrawny cats appeared, dutifully going on their rounds; and another attempt was made by Pluviôse (the rain god depicted in Baudelaire’s Spleen) to soak us. I watched in ethically-questionable amusement as those among the audience who had accepted the Consulate’s thoughtful offer of a fold-away raincoat made unsuccessful attempts to don the recalcitrant garment, poking their heads and arms through the wrong holes and getting strait-jacketed for their pains. But yet again Pluviôse was pipped at the post, and after a few initial spatterings the rain held off.

Here are two recordings of Richard Galliano’s masterful playing. In the first, he is performing Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango; in the second, he is improvising on this same melody:


Now, here are the trio (Fresu, Galliano and Lundgren) in Que reste-t-il de nos amours:


And finally, Paolo Fresu and pianist Uri Caine in Caruso:


Thanks for this enjoyable June evening are due to the French Consulate-General in Istanbul for so generously allowing the use of their garden; to Stoneline, the performance sponsor; and – as always – to the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV). I am particularly grateful to Ms Ayşegül Öneren, who has taken over at the İKSV from Ms Derya Bozcuk as provider of complimentary tickets to the events of the Istanbul Music Festival. Like Ms Bozcuk before her, Ms Öneren has unfailingly responded with patience and fortitude to my unreasonable demands for scannable – does that rhyme with ‘cannibal’? – ticket documents. (As I do not possess a smartphone, I need special pampering to cater for my fuddy-duddy peculiarities.)

It is heart-warming to think that there is an organisation that is willing to persuade musical performers – despite an understandable reluctance to travel – to come to Istanbul to entertain us, and that insists on providing us with high-quality musical experiences even in the most problematic of times. I applaud their insistence, and hereby register my gratitude to the İstanbul Kültür Sanat Vakfı. Yaşasınlar!

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