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Istanbul Was A Musical by Pierre English


49th Istanbul Music Festival, courtesy of IKSV

I was there, before the winds changed, when a man could saunter down a cold, lonely alley under the shadow of a medieval tower and find himself welcomed among jazz lovers, sipping on a cold beer while basking in the proud sweep of Brazilian rhythms knocked out of the storied house piano at Nardis, as by Dan Costa and his quartet, kicked into high gear by the virtuosic and prolific Turkish drummer Ferit Odman. The two bubbled with chemistry one bold, innocent night in late October, 2019, when the world still cozied up to the idea of a future without the virus. Together with Tamer Temel on alto saxophone and Ozan Musluoğlu on bass, they rounded out familiar and exotic airs with solid backbeats pronouncing songs in the famed bossa nova and samba style, and lesser-known Latin tempos.


Costa played like a worker, fast absorbed in the complexity that only such a skilled accompanist as Odman could have accentuated as dynamically. And just before everything closed by government mandate, a quintet led by trumpeter Şenova Ülker blared to the harmonies of humanity's last dance with each other in free public spaces, indoors, when it was becoming risky to sit and listen to music behind closed doors. It was as if he had the premonition to understand just how important it would be to keep playing, as he invited guest musicians up in droves right out of the audience. An electric bassist here, a saxophonist there. They joined core bandmates, Burak Dursun on trombone, Önder Focan on guitar, Anıl Deniz on bass, Fırtına Kıral on drums. That was in mid-March, 2020, when Ülker blasted away on his elegant piece of brass with all of the power of a true bandleader.


As the world reopened, and people have returned to live music in clubs and halls having experienced the depths of solitude, the strains of family dependency, governmental oversight, and a general state of health emergency, the need for jazz has only intensified. Istanbul's Nardis is a gem of nostalgia, recalling the ambiance of old New York, when America's Great Migration brought blues musicians furnished with parade band instruments from New Orleans and its environs about the deep south up to freer, northern cities. And they mixed, mingled, and played out with the heart and soul of the universal yearning for freedom that has transformed jazz into a seamlessly adaptable international art form. That is the spirit that Ceren Temel held when leading her quartet on August 13.


Temel is a gifted scat singer with a keen sense of vocal notation. Her second set began with an ode to hipsters, accompanied by Kaan Bıyıkoğlu on a cutting-edge electric hammond organ with Önder Focan on guitar and Fırtına Kıral on drums. The intensity of solos by Bıyıkoğlu burst and exploded with immaculate prowess as supported by Kıral. And as always, with a certain sound reminiscent of Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery, Focan kept time and elaborated on the jazz tradition with a perfectionist's sensibility. Temel played one of her compositions. And although Costa performed a peerless version of The Girl from Ipanema, Nardis is a precious forum where Turkey's top jazz composers premiere and play their own pieces, both the vocalists and instrumentalists. It is the music, ultimately, that binds them, each note rolling off their tongues and fingers with delight, swinging.


And while perhaps set to more fixed approaches to tune and time, the classical music world in the largest Turkish metropolis is as sharp, inventive and robust as any city in the world. On the opening night of the 49th Istanbul Music Festival, a light breeze wafted through the open-air amphitheater in Harbiye, just a few steps from downtown core, the bustle of Taksim Square, verdant Maçka Park and the uptown district of Nişantaşı. The fantasies of Sergey Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich adapted the popular dances of their listeners in Soviet Russia, animating the forms of yore with medleys that surprised and astonished the cultural establishment with crescendos and glissandos that soared across their keyboards and fretboards, surpassing all prior definitions of virtuosity with a venturesome playfulness.


Concert pianist Anna Vinnitskaya made it look easy, and fun. She powered up and down the notation of Piano Concerto no.1 in D flat Major, op.10 by Prokofiev, followed by two works by Shostakovich, Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor, op.35 and Suite for Jazz Orchestra no.2 (Suite for Variety Orchestra), the latter of which quoted from a time when European composers were listening to American jazz, and adapting their musical vocabularies to New World creativity. There was no one as entertaining on the opening night as conductor Aziz Shokhakimov, whose every frenetic bounce made his hair flap like the wings of a bird in flight. The choice of composition was perfect for an opening night, as it started the energy of the festival with so many bangs, pops and whistles, the proud and glorious precedent of musical energy erupting from that country which shares the Black Sea with Turkey, where much of Western music history has been made, still rightfully celebrated.


That does not mean that music history is not being made today, quite the contrary, as its continuity is absolutely inspired by the vigor of performing past works. Out of Turkey, a legend of new music has long risen. The name Fazil Say provokes the eccentric magic of classical music in the 21st century. A composer-performer who references Turkish folk music in his increasingly impressive repertoire or recordings and compositions, Say is a national hero, and equally a universalist mad genius whose art knowns no bounds, a figure of world heritage whose relationship to his country of birth is channeled through his music, imbuing the world with a revitalization of musical sound as it echoes from the instruments and voices born and bred by Turkey's diverse, international fusions of culture.


The second night of the 49th Istanbul Music Festival, Say sat at the piano, alone, and played a world premiere of his composition, titled, Piano Sonata, op.99, “New Life”. It was an ecstatic embrace of personal and collective survival in the midst of global arrest. He conducted himself with one hand, feeling the music to abandon, as he plucked the strings of the piano, dazzling with avant-garde effects. He followed that with another world premiere, which was intended to reach audiences in Germany prior, but due to the pandemic had been rescheduled for Istanbul. Violin Sonata no.1, op.7 and Violin Sonata no.2, op.82, “Mount Ida” were played to the accompaniment of Friedemann Eichhorn, a violinist who has a special report with Say, as the two have a recording history. Eichhorn plays theatrically, and while performing "Mount Ida" in particular, an homage to the highlands which, in 2019, roused progressive Turks and civil society allies to environmental activism to protect the landscape from extractive industry.


Eichhorn emulated the sound of birds with his violin, projecting a scintillating variety of chirps and squeaks as Say moved from themes of heavy dramatic force to achingly tender emotionality. Prior to playing Scherzo for violin and piano in C minor (F.A.E Sonata), composed by a very young Johannes Brahms, Eichhorn told the story of the composition, and that one of its motifs was loneliness, but that he did not feel lonely in Istanbul as he proclaimed that everyone in the audience were his friends. Finally, Casalquartett came onstage to deliver Agadio for String Quartet, op.11 by Samuel Barber, and the strength of their vibrating, bowed wooden instruments rushed forth, resounding with palpable energy. The evening concluded with “The Walking Mansion” in Memory of Atatürk, op.72, a composition by Say, which he performed in his singular and peerless gusto, at times hovering over his bench, spreading one of his hands over his head as if he were conjuring the spirit of his subject, the founder of the Turkish republic, fleshing out the magisterial grandeur of a man who he, as a musician, has come to immortalize by the sheer beauty of notes successively played to the tempo of the age.



Pierre English is a music critic based in Montreal, Canada