Archive Reviews

The Uneasy Intersection of Politics and Music in Contemporary Turkey

  • Collecting tickets at the premiere of Mr. Say’s composition at the music festival.

    Collecting tickets at the premiere of Mr. Say’s composition at the music festival.

  • Berkant Kaya in his shop in Istanbul, where he builds and repairs traditional Turkish instruments.

    Berkant Kaya in his shop in Istanbul, where he builds and repairs traditional Turkish instruments.

  • Elman Mecid playing the marimba at the Istanbul Toy Museum as part of the city’s music festival.

    Elman Mecid playing the marimba at the Istanbul Toy Museum as part of the city’s music festival.

  • Fazil Say, on piano, with the Borusan Quartet at the Istanbul Music Festival. Photos by Monique Jaques.

    Fazil Say, on piano, with the Borusan Quartet at the Istanbul Music Festival. Photos by Monique Jaques.

Look East, West and Inward

Challenges Test Turkey’s Classical Music Ensembles

July 10, 2014   |   The New York Times

ISTANBUL — On a recent evening here, young people tossed Frisbees on the grassy lawns of an American-style college campus, while elegantly clad patrons sipped wine before a concert featuring the soprano Diana Damrau and the harpist Xavier de Maistre.

The concert, at Bogazici University’s Albert Long Hall, was part of the final week of events in the Istanbul Music Festival, a vibrant lineup of homegrown and international talent in eclectic spaces ranging from traditional halls to a toy museum.

Many of Turkey’s ’s attractions, including its beaches, ornate mosques and other architectural wonders, are well known. But the country has a lower profile as a hot spot for Western classical music, opera and ballet. In June, apart from the festival, the cultural lineup in Istanbul featured the International Istanbul Ballet Competition and the Istanbul Opera Festival; regional events elsewhere included the Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival at historic spaces in Antalya.

The Istanbul Music Festival, now in its 42nd year, is mostly financed by private sponsors whose names are displayed prominently on billboards at events like the one in which Ms. Damrau performed and an excellent chamber concert the following evening featuring the violinist Kirill Troussov, the cellist Gautier Capuçon and the pianist Jérôme Ducros.

Turkey also has an extensive network of state-subsidized orchestras, opera companies and ballet troupes that perform around the country. The ensembles are part of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, who used the Western classical arts as a tool for modernization after the republic was created in 1923.

Ataturk invited the German composer Paul Hindemith to help organize a national, egalitarian system of Western classical music in Turkey. A 1938 article in The New York Times described the challenges that Hindemith faced, like social barriers to organizing mixed-gender choirs and to teaching the Western intervals to “persons whose harmonic sense was a haphazard compound of East and West.”

As a result of Hindemith’s suggestions, a music conservatory was founded in Ankara in 1936, and a factory began making instruments for local use under the guidance of German specialists. Music education was introduced in the schools, and orchestras were established.

Among the musicians who benefited from the government support is the pianist Idil Biret, 72, whose portrait is included in the exhibition “Plurivocality: Visual Arts and Music in Turkey”, which opened recently at the Istanbul Modern museum. A law passed in 1948 by the Turkish Parliament helped to finance her studies abroad.

In a commencement address last month at Sabanci University, Ms. Biret spoke out against a draft law that would cut state financing for arts organizations and privatize them. The move is viewed by some in the arts sector as a reprisal against musicians, artists and intellectuals who have criticized the government of Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

If the state largess is reduced, some ensembles in Istanbul may be able to secure private funds, said Ahmet Erenli, general manager of Borusan Culture and Arts, the umbrella organization for the entity that sponsors the Istanbul Music Festival. But musical groups in cities with less developed modes of sponsorship, and the ballet and opera companies, would almost certainly crumble, he said.

In her commencement speech, Ms. Biret invoked a warning from the Turkish classical composer Muammer Sun. “Each of these institutions symbolizes the contemporary national and universal accumulated knowledge in our country,” she quoted him as saying. “If this knowledge is destroyed, the level of civilization that the Turkish nation has reached will be destroyed as well.”

In a recent interview, Serhan Bali, the editor of Andante, a classical music magazine and website in Turkey, said: “We are like Russia, neither East nor West. These institutions are symbols that we are part of Western culture and are part of our call to embrace Western civilization.”

It’s not the first time in recent history that classical music has assumed added importance for secularists during clashes with Islamist governments. During the brief tenure of Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, in the 1990s, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s 1946 oratorio “Yunus Emre” became anthems for Western values.

Ataturk, whom the pianist and musicologist Filiz Ali credits with “genius” for his cultural strategy, cast classical music as a democratic medium. But for musicians like Ahmet Altınel, a violist, composer and teacher, it has come to embody a kind of elitism. Mr. Altinel argues that traditional Turkish music, which was banned from the radio for a brief period during the republic’s early years, was “humiliated” in the process of Westernizing the country — denigrated because it is not polyphonic, for example.

The Istanbul Music Festival, which attracts a well-heeled westernized audience, has been similarly faulted as elitist for its high ticket prices, an echo of criticism leveled at classical music institutions in Europe and the United States.

“Most people are used to the ticket prices of the state orchestras, which are very cheap,” acknowledged Yesim Gurer Oymak, the artistic director of the festival. She said that festival planners had recently adopted several new initiatives to attract new audiences, however, like free Sunday concerts in the parks.

They have also introduced a program to commission new music from international and Turkish composers like Fazil Say, whose work marking the 60th anniversary of the death of the author Sait Faik Abasiyanik received its premiere at this year’s festival. (Mr. Say has been fiercely criticized for comments belittling the Turkish-Arabic pop hybrid known as Arabesque; he has also been convicted of insulting religious values and received a suspended jail sentence for tweets that the authorities deemed blasphemous.)

His musical-theater piece, sung in Turkish (with no translations) and meshing Eastern and Western instruments, drew a large crowd to Burgazada island on June 25, with many listeners spread out on the rocks by the waterfront outside the ticketed seating area. It also featured the Borusan Quartet, one of several ensembles financed by Borusan, including a children’s choir and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, an ensemble that includes some two dozen members of the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra.

The Borusan orchestra performed on the final night of the festival in the Zorlu Center for the Performing Arts in a luxury shopping mall. Many young people were in attendance as the orchestra, led by Sascha Goetzel, its artistic director, offered polished and vibrant interpretations of Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony” and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Alexander Romanovsky replacing an indisposed Yuja Wang as soloist). The hall’s dull acoustics proved less than ideal for unamplified music, however.

Some arts supporters lament the closing of the Ataturk Cultural Center on Taksim Square, the former home of the Istanbul state orchestra, which is to be demolished as part of a proposed redevelopment that would include an Ottoman-era aesthetic. (The government says a new cultural center and opera house will be built in its place.)

“There is a cold war between the East and West” in Turkey,” said Berkant Kaya, a merchant sitting amid violins, baglamas (a stringed folk instrument that he teaches) and Turkish percussion instruments in his tiny store on a narrow street crammed with music shops. “The government pushed people into the concert halls,” he added, referring to Ataturk’s reforms.

Mr. Kaya watched a satirical online video by the filmmaker Sinan Cetin that echoes his perspective. On screen, gun-wielding soldiers burst in on a gathering of locals playing folk music and order the perplexed musicians to stop. “Be happy,” the soldiers bark, before declaring that from now on, the people will be Western.

The musicians then pick up their instruments and play a theme from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which incorporates Turkish instrumentation: examples of the fascination of 18th- and early 19th-century Western composers with the Janissary military bands.

Conversely, the Istanbul State Symphony, which also performed at the festival, bears the imprint of Western music of the 19th century, when Sultan Mahmut II invited Giuseppe Donizetti (an elder brother of the opera composer Gaetano Donizetti) to found the Imperial Ottoman Orchestra in Istanbul. Giuseppe Donizetti taught Western music to members of the Ottoman royal family and hosted European luminaries like Liszt.

Even Turks who firmly support keeping state-subsidized ensembles alive acknowledge that changes are needed, including tighter enforcement of standards, trimming excessively long summer vacations and redressing chaotic management. “They are civil servants,” Mr. Bali, the Andante editor, said of the performers. “Musicians get their salaries from the government, whether they play well or poorly. The system has to be reformed.”

Ms. Oymak, the festival’s artistic director, said that it always gives the state orchestra a chance to perform “to encourage them and to show our solidarity.” In the future, the festival also plans to add concerts dedicated to traditional Turkish and Ottoman-era music, she added.

For some, a synthesis of traditions may be the ideal. In Mr. Kaya’s shop, Ahmet Turunc, a 27-year-old visitor from the southeastern city of Diyarbakir tried out a hand drum before pausing as the call to prayer rang out from a local mosque.

“Turkish music is richer than Western music,” he said. “But mixing Western and Eastern cultures is important for richer results.”

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