fri 22/06/2018

theartsdesk at the D-Marin Festival: Turkish poetry in music, Bach at sunrise | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the D-Marin Festival: Turkish poetry in music, Bach at sunrise

theartsdesk at the D-Marin Festival: Turkish poetry in music, Bach at sunrise

Open-air adventures from an epic Turkish oratorio to solo strings by the sea

Mozart at sunset: the Mavi Quintet at Turgutreis MarinaAll concert images from D-Marin Festival

Istanbul six weeks before the failed coup, the south-west coast of Turkey six weeks after: what's the difference? None that I could see; once past the Turkish Airlines flights, with literature and screen full of the "People's Victory", there was no sign of it at the D-Marin Classical Music Festival on the Bodrum peninsula, centred around the marina in Turgutreis, a 45-minute drive along a very built-up coastline from once-quiet Bodrum. One of the Turkish musicians studying abroad whom I heard at both the Istanbul and Bodrum festivals told me that, having postponed a home visit at the time of the coup, he sensed a tension in most people. That might well have been set aside as many retired Istanbullus flocked to their summer retreats and helped to pack out every event in this enterprising week of seaside concerts.

In fact it was a distinguished member of that same set, General Aytaç Yalman, former commander of the Turkish land forces and now 76, who back in 2003 gazed into the sunset at the Turgutreis marina and thought how wonderful it would be to listen to live music at the same time. He now has a new lease of life as an opera librettist, and his festival is 11 years old, continuing to thrive under the banner - no escaping it at every event  - of the founding supporter, the Doğuş Group.

Under management since last year from Pozitif, the dynamic Turkish events organiser which for some years toured a legendary international Blues Festival around the country, and with input from the old master of the UK concert-agent scene, Jasper Parrott, it can now boast a perfect balance between the best of Turkish classical musicians and international visitors, among them Vladimir Ashkenazy, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Gautier Capuçon.

Cansin Kara in early-morning Bach at the D-Marin Festival

The special draw for an outsider is that all of each day's three concerts take place al fresco - not something we can risk so often in the UK. The agenda was to arrive late on a weekday night in time to catch Bach at sunrise in a garden by the sea. At the same time I’d be picking up where I'd left off when I was last in Turkey with another Bach Cello Suite from the brilliant young Turkish cellist Cansin Kara (pictured above), whom I'd heard hit the right spiritual highs of the Fourth in Istanbul's Armenian Church. If that was unusual, this was unique; he'd never played Bach so early in the morning, and nor had his friend and contemporary, violinist Emre Engin, whose performance in two Bach concertos with the electrifying Istanbul Chamber Orchestra had rocked the foundations of the city’s Crimean Memorial (Anglican) Church.

Humidity as opposed to the usual dry heat was affecting the Turkish coast this summer, but the promised breezes were quick to materialise, occasioning an interventionist attachment of music to stands. Interesting that the movements in both Kara's First Suite and the special sequence Engin drew from the Partitas which really affected the first of many emotionally direct audiences I witnessed were those which veered, however briefly, into minor-key melancholy – so close, I'm told, to that specifically Turkish bittersweet sadness called hüzün of which Orhan Pamuk writes so eloquently.

Passers-by stopped and stayed, among them two of the few headscarved women I saw either here or in the Istanbul Festival events and a cloth-capped man with his daughter who both sat rapt and swaying on the nearby pavement. The front-row matrons wanted the two performers to play together, just as the next day they requested encores from a distinguished Turkish cello duo: "Aren't you going to play more? We got up especially early to hear you."

Engin, Kara and Shevchenko at sunset concert

Engin and Kara were back at sunset in the marina's amphitheatre to play piano trios with an ideal chamber-music pianist, the graceful and engaging Kazakh-born Oxana Shevchenko. They dared quasi-improvisational tziganery in the finale of Haydn’s “Gypsy” Piano Trio, to wild applause, and melancholy, full-tilt solos in Shostakovich's earliest trio specimen were rather outlandishly spotlit by the generally not too bad amplification. But the highlight had to be Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor.

By happy coincidence I’d heard its D minor predecessor only a fortnight earlier, played by young musicians at Norfolk’s Southrepps Festival who knew these three from their London studies. While the First Piano Trio has the more outlandish piano part, so brilliantly despatched in Southrepps by Martin James Bartlett, there was an extra coup here heightened by spiritual serendipity. As the sparkling scherzo drew to a close at 8pm, the muezzin’s call to prayer from the nearby mosque began. The players waited for it to finish before taking up the finale – in which Mendelssohn offers the surprise of a Lutheran chorale half way through. I’m not suggesting any religious pecking order here, but the Bach tradition did make a pleasing recurrence 13 hours after its first manifestation that day to clinch an overwhelmingly optimistic conclusion.

Fazil Say's Nazim Oratorio

Turkish tradition, albeit secular rather than sacred, had the upper hand in the big concert two hours later in a makeshift auditorium approached via thronging public and VIP entrances. Only one negative here: the sometimes ear-splitting, distorting amplification, taxed by huge forces. But the work itself and its impact on a packed audience were unforgettable. Pianist-composer Fazil Say, absent from the UK for far too long, has had a huge hit all over Turkey with his Nâzım Oratorio (pictured above).

Nazim Hikmet poemsTurks were aghast that we Brits didn’t know the poet in question other than by name (I’ve made amends since). Nâzım Hikmet (1902-63) spent far too many years of his life – 13 in prison, 13 in exile – suffering for his beliefs. Somehow the communism he espoused following time in Russia during the early 1920s and which saw him die in Moscow, at peace with himself as he always was in his poetry, never encumbers his writing with ideological baggage. He remains a hero in Turkey, though not with Erdoğan’s regime and its supporters.

Hikmet’s poetry is both nationally-attuned and personal, adding up to a Mayakovsky-style biography of himself and the changes through which he lived. So his more unashamedly populist poems get a populist treatment from Say which might strike us over here as verging on the Lloyd-Webberish. He certainly knows how to shape a large canvas, though. The most startling numbers are some of those in which the 78-year-old Turkish actor Genco Erkal – so toweringly charismatic and Lear-like that he could move me to tears even when I couldn’t understand more than one word in 50 – declaimed to selective orchestration, and eventually against piano writing from Say which dissolved into a seemingly part-improvised cadenza.

Scene from Nazim Oratorio

There are roles for children, one of them singing a famous Hikmet lyric about the spirit of a seven-year-old-girl burnt to cinders in Hiroshima; for a female vocalist, Say’s muse Serenad Bağcan, who sat attentive like a great operatic diva but sang her two memorable sequences with traditional Turkish ornamentation; and for a baritone, the deeply expressive Arda Aktar from Ankara State Opera (Aktar, Bağcan and Erkal pictured above). İbrahim Yazici conducted the admirable Bilkent Symphony Orchestra with lean physicality and thorough knowledge of the words. The Nâzım Hikmet Chorus, a year-old creation of the ever-surprising Fay, was stunning throughout – professional, focused, precise even in their choreographed sittings and risings. The audience’s ecstatic reactions, their applause for Erkal’s delivery of famous Hikmet verses, would alone have been worth the price of admission; but the delivery put this performance on the very highest level.

After an excursion in the afternoon heat to view the main festival exhibition in association with Istanbul’s Gaia Gallery, a modest trio of artists’ responses to “The Call of Marsyas” in and outside a tiny old church dominated by Gönül Nuhoğlu’s No Man’s Land of aluminium and glass gazelle heads, the following evening’s concerts followed the same pattern. Four top notch Turkish wind players came together with a less agile pianist for Mozart, more Mendelssohn and Poulenc at sunset. The main event could have been routine, a gift more to an audience hungry for top European musicians than to a visitor used to this kind of quality. It wasn’t. Gautier Capuçon wrought that rare concert-hall magic from the mid-point of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto to the pin-drop-quiet end of the slow movement; this was the only movement out of so many I heard in two days that the audience didn’t applaud. Not that I begrudged them when they did: the emotional response was always direct, the listening intent.

Capucon and Tonhalle Orchestra at Turgutreis

They were held, but inevitably erupted at the end. Capuçon obliged not with the anticipated Bach encore but with Piatigorsky’s arrangement of the March from Prokofiev’s piano-suite Music for Children, a transcription I didn't know. Nor did Lionel Bringuier and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (pictured above with Capuçon) play to the gallery, at least not in any respect but the sheer visceral quality of the playing, in Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. A difficult work to pull together, it flew like an arrow towards the most thrillingly articulate coda in a symphony not usually known for its high excitement levels.

First violins weathered the improved amplification in both halves to carry on sounding as one, and the last encore was inspired: Rossini’s Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers. Ironically, given the circumstances, the only thing missing was the optional janissary-band percussion. Yet although I'm not too sure that the entire opera, with its mockery of the doting Turkish bey Mustafa, would play too well among his people, this was magic from the opening oboe solo – an effervescent conclusion to a concert that delighted a typically responsive and attentive audience.

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