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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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge