Turkey has a distinguished tradition of orchestral music, dating back to Guiseppe Donizetti, brother of the famous opera composer, in Ottoman times, but still too rarely does it receive international attention. Two remarkable concerts in late August in Istanbul proved the growing richness of the country’s orchestral life, and the enterprise, energy and vision of its musical leaders to give young people the best possible opportunities to perform. The first, played to a full house at the Zorlu Centre for the Performing Arts, proved the Turkish National Youth Philharmonic Orchestra’s quality; the second, on Heybeliada, brought together young musicians from across Istanbul, organised by the Music Foundation for Peace.
The TNYPO’s concert, conducted by its music director Cem Mansur, opened with Richard Strauss’ Don Juan – a test of individual and collective technique, responsiveness, flexibility and daring. To start a concert with this great tone poem makes a declaration of intent – and multiple opportunities for failure. Its opening requires a large dose of self-believe and mutual trust between orchestra and conductor: TNYPO and Mansur jumped in head first, made light work of all its difficulties, and gave a surging, sweeping performance, sustained into the empty darkness of its ending. The marathon concert, which would have tested even an experienced professional orchestra, also included Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist and TNYPO alumna Hande Küden; Turkish music was represented by Ali Özkan Manav’s magnificent rhapsody on Ali Ekber Çiçek’s song Haydar Haydar, receiving its first performance. There was no hint of ‘cross-over’, amorphous ‘world music’ or contrived tokenism here, rather the song was transformed into a dazzlingly virtuosic modern orchestral showcase.
Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, evokes, in the composer’s own words, ‘the silence of the monotonous steppes’ in which ‘a peaceful Russian song is heard’, then ‘from the distance, the melancholy notes of an Oriental melody’, before ‘the Russian and Asiatic melodies join in a common harmony’. Borodin’s father was Georgian prince and his mother was Russian: beyond the music’s hypnotic beauty, its symbolism, performed at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, could not have been stronger.
Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations is a symphony in miniature: full of contrasting but thematically related episodes wrapped into one concentrated movement. After Haydar, Haydar’s energy burst and Borodin’s static serenity, anything but the finest playing could have felt anti-climactic: instead, Mansur led the Orchestra in an account of assured conviction and elegant panache. This was the concert’s ‘official’ end, but then came Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino – probably the most substantial concert ‘encore’ I have experienced – and finally the exuberant Farandole from Bizet’s L'Arlésienne Suite No.2. A concert programme that in lesser hands could have been a reckless test of endurance proved a triumph.
Before the concert, Mansur and the musicians gave a lucid exhibition of how an orchestra functions as a ‘Laboratory of Democracy’. It showed how orchestra members must go beyond individual playing technique to tackle the fundamental challenge for an orchestra: constantly to listen, anticipate and respond to one another. The conductor acts as a conduit, offering leadership but also helping the musicians to listen intently to their colleagues. For long stretches of music, a good orchestra is capable of playing on its own, but at crucial moments direction is essential. Without the conductor, leadership from another musician – most often the principal violinist – emerges spontaneously. Mansur showed how an orchestra’s success and the relationship with its conductor could be presented as a microcosm of human society. It offers an instant demonstration of human interaction, demanding a deep combination of individual excellence, respect for others, flexibility and sense of mutual responsibility to function harmoniously.
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Two days later, Heybeliada was the setting for a very different concert by young Turkish musicians. The Music for Peace Foundation, in collaboration with the Princes Islands Council under its president Sinan Özbek, presented a concert in the tranquil grounds of the historic Ruhban School, which crowns Heybeli’s highest peak. Three instrumental ensembles with over 100 musicians and chorus joined forces under the direction of three young charismatic South American volunteer conductors for a heartfelt joyous evening of music.
The Music Foundation for Peace, founded in 2005 and part of the international El Sistema network, is based in Istanbul’s Edirnekapı district, offering free music education for children and young people with limited opportunities. It has now developed parallel projects on the Princes Islands, Bursa and Izmir, with support from the Istanbul Culture and Arts Foundation.
The concert included arrangements of classical works and Latin music, which played to the conductors’ strengths. Starting with the most experienced musicians, ever increasing numbers of children joined the ensemble as the night progressed. All performed with conviction, rhythmic energy, standing confidently for solos, and with much exuberant clapping and twirling of instruments to the audience’s delight, including numerous parents taking justified pride in their children’s achievement. Towards the end, a choir joined for a short excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Even in simplified form, the music and its timeless message of common humanity shone through: at the concert’s end, my neighbour and I both admitted afterwards to being profoundly moved.
These outstanding concerts were a demonstration of musical excellence, social enterprise and community. In their contrasting ways, they proved without a single word being uttered, how orchestras bring together people from different places and backgrounds in a shared endeavour where for success and harmony, the only option is an openness to listen to one other and a spirit of collaboration.