Istanbul Music Festival 2012- review

How Helene Grimaud and Fazil Say played with mixed performances

At the cusp of Occident and Orient, Turkey’s history is one of negotiation – balancing, sometimes bloodily, the cultural cross-currents of Europe and the Middle East. Nowhere has this balance been more vividly, more directly staged than in Istanbul, a city whose architecture – a jumbled lexis of Byzantine, Ottoman and Classical styles proclaims the complexity of its political history.

This same mongrel vigour is at work in the city’s annual sequence of arts festivals, animating their programmes with vivid and unexpected contrasts, if not outright conflict. Celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year, the Istanbul Festival is almost unrecognisable from its first incarnation in 1973. A small annual event has since grown exponentially, generating separate, self-contained festivals for theatre, jazz, and most recently design and the visual arts.

Sandwiched in the middle of these is a month-long celebration of classical music. Housed principally at Hagia Eirene – the former Eastern Orthodox church within the walls of Topkapi Palace – the festival’s support of Turkish artists is matched by a habitually strong lineup of international soloists. Chief among these this year were Anne-Sophie Mutter (whose performance of Mozart and Rihm took place earlier this month) and French pianist Helene Grimaud.

Notoriously uneven across different performances and repertoires, you never know quite what you’re going to get with Grimaud. And so it proved here; in an evening’s programme of solo piano music that saw her at both her finest and worst extremes.

The clean lines of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor may not be technically challenging, but what they forgive in terms of technique they demand in stylistic respect. In the vaulted acoustic of Hagia Eirene clarity was always going to be an issue, but with melodies torn from their sockets and twisted every which-way by Grimaud’s splashy, Romantic approach this sonic haziness at least offered the softening that the pianist so determinedly refused to offer. Gripped in the bass, neurotically over-phrased in the treble, there was little left of Mozart here to appreciate.

What a different story though in the rest of a mixed programme that found Grimaud glowing and humane in Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1, and punchily percussive in Bartok’s miniature sequence of Romanian Folk Dances. Liszt’s B minor Sonata was the formidable centrepiece – its Allegro energico and Prestissimo sections as ferocious as anything ever written for the piano.

Here the same convulsions and eruptions that so disturbed Grimaud’s Mozart found their rhythm, matched for intensity by Liszt’s writing. Savouring the tenderness of the Andante sostenuto, Grimaud managed to incorporate the two rival moods of this symphony for the piano into a single arc, equalling the setting of Hagia Eirene for dramatic scope.

As close to a folk-hero as contemporary Turkish life yields, when pianist and composer Fazil Say is not performing he delights in playing the contrarian in public life. His opinions are never less than vigorously expressed, and his irreverent pronouncements on religion see him facing trial in court later this year. But while Say might be the bane of the Turkish government, he is beloved by Turkish audiences.

When most nations were voicing their national identity musically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Turkey was otherwise engaged politically, leaving the country with a void in the genre. Only now and in Say’s music has the country’s character and troubled history begun to find expression, and the results have met with enthusiasm. While Say’s first “Istanbul” symphony was a more modest affair, his second “Mesopotamia” is a cinematic journey through his homeland and its history, taking in the region’s entrenched conflict as well as the physical beauty of its great rivers.

To Western European ears the result might seem strangely reactionary – a tone-poem in continuous movements in the manner of Sibelius or Smetana, but once you accept that this isn’t a symphony in the conventional sense and accept a programmatic form that works through contrasts rather than organic development, things fall into place.

Say’s music hitherto has occupied the darkly monochrome landscape so typical of Turkish music, but here with the aid of some unusual instrumentation he finds new harmonies spaces. The unearthly, pitch-bending theremin (played by Carolina Eyck) stands musically for an angel, and its voice calls out plaintively over the thick orchestral textures. Scenes of war bring the brass of the Borustan Istanbul Philharmonic to the fore, gaining an urgency and blunt edge that the orchestra under veteran Gurer Aykal lacked in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto earlier in the evening.

A dissenting voice in life, in music Say is nothing if not affirming. With the closing Ballad of Mesopotamia section of his symphony he discovers a tentatively hopeful vision for Turkish future – a vision that feels a long way (both emotionally and technically) from such early works as Black Earth or his “Silk Road” concerto.

But while the Istanbul Music Festival itself is unquestionably international, in the standard of its concerts as well as the breadth of its programming, the same as yet cannot be said of Turkish classical music. With Say, Turkey has the idiosyncratic, reassuring voice that its audiences want, but perhaps not the truly contemporary voice that they deserve – certainly not one capable of taking the nation’s music beyond self-reflexive national contemplation and into the musical discourse of Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Helene Grimaud, who performed this month in the festival. Photo: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.