Monday, 16 March 2015

Making Music on the edge of Europe

Sascha Goetzel and Zeynep Hamedi photographed after the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic concert
Sascha Goetzel and Zeynep Hamedi
photographed after the
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic concert
photo credit Ozge Balkan
The view from our restaurant in Istanbul gives a magnificent panorama of the Bosphorus with the shore of Europe on one side and that of Asia on the other. I am in Istanbul as a guest of the Borusan Foundation to meet members of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and hear it perform Haydn's The Seasons (see my review). And with Asia within sight, it is clear that the orchestra really does make music on the edge of Europe.

Giuseppe Donizetti
Giuseppe Donizetti
Classical music in fact has a long history in Turkey, in 1828 Giuseppe Donizetti (brother of the composer) became Instructor General of the Imperial Ottoman Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II (1808–39) and Giuseppe Donizetti was in Turkey until his death in 1866. He trained the European-style military bands of Mahmud’s modern army, taught music to the Ottoman royal family, and he was involved in the the annual Italian opera season, concerts and operatic performances at court, and played host to a number of eminent virtuosi who visited Istanbul. A later Sultan built his own opera house and hosted private opera performances with Italian singers. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as part of his programme of modernisation of the the Turkish state, introduced Western style opera and ballet companies (Dame Ninette de Valois worked on the founding the latter), symphony orchestras and music conservatoires.

But the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra is quite young, being founded in 1999 but based on the Borusan Chamber Orchestra which was founded in 1993. The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra's founding music director was the Turkish conductor Gürer Aykal. Since 2009 the orchestra's music director has been the Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel. The orchestra is nearly all Turkish (only four non-Turks generally perform) and most are trained in Turkish conservatoires. It is a young orchestra, with an average age of around 30 and the youngest is currently 20. When I heard them perform, I noted that at least 50 percent of the players on the platform were women (including a woman trombone player).

The orchestra plays a regular season of concerts in Istanbul, performing in the conference centre on the European side as well as performing on the Asian side. Though the orchestra has toured, tours have in the past generally been confined to Turkey and to neighbouring countries, but in 2010 they were in Salzburg and came to greater attention in 2014 when Sascha Goetzel led the orchestra in its first appearance at the BBC Proms.

Sascha Goetzel and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra recording their third CD
Sascha Goetzel and the
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra
recording their third CD
At home, the orchestra has the usual problems of classical music ensembles everywhere. The audience for their main Istanbul series is generally older, and classical music can be seen as expensive and elitist. But the orchestra provides extensive free tickets to students and young people. But they also do concerts in a smaller venue (their own music house), and these are more contemporary and can attract a more diverse audience. Whilst not exactly big in Turkey, classical music has a strong presence and the fact that there are so many classically trained Turkish artists inevitably leads to some dissemination, and currently the pianist Fazil Say is extremely popular.

Rather remarkably, the orchestra is wholly private, being owned and funded by the Borusan Foundation which was created by Asım Kocabıyık, founder of Borusan Holdings which is Turkey's largest steel conglomerate. The Borusan Foundation is currently headed by Ahmet Kocabıyık, the chair of Borusan Holdings whilst Borusan Culture and Arts (which runs the orchestra and the contemporary art programme) is headed by Kocabıyık's sister Zeynep Hamedi.

Before the orchestra's performance in Istanbul which I attended, we were lucky enough to have a meeting with Zeynep Hamedi to talk about the orchestra and the contemporary art programme. She explained that the foundation created by her father focusses mainly on educational projects. Their family has always undertaken cultural sponsorship, but this was originally done on an ad hoc basis with organisations asking for money. Zeynep Hamedi's brother Ahmet Kocabıyık decided to regularise things and he initiated the idea for being pro-active in sponsoring classical music by creating an orchestra, using the existing foundation as an umbrella organisation for it. The chamber orchestra was founded in 1993, with their own cultural centre and the full orchestra coming later.

Choosing not to go into the family business (Zeynep Hamedi admits that she tried but did not last very long), she was asked to become chair of Borusan Culture and Arts. The family's support extends to the visual arts, and their father supported Turkish artists and this has continued with Zeynep Hamedi and her brother. The foundation now supports contemporary Turkish art, notably video art, but the family buys art for their own use as well.

Borusan Music House photo Ahmet Ertug
Borusan Music House photo Ahmet Ertug
The idea for an orchestra came from Ahmet Kocabıyık's university years in Pittsburgh when Andre Previn was conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Unlike a number of other philanthropists, the family's support for classical music does not seem to be because of their own burning passion for the art form. Rather it seems to arise from their perception of a need in Turkish society, and Zeynep Hamedi comments that it is quite conceivable that another art form could have been chosen. Their concern was that with few orchestras (and just a handful of state supported ones), classical music in Turkey was not sufficiently accessible. There is also the idea, raised more than once in our discussions, that in order to be a citizen of the world you should be able to listen to classical music. This idea of opening a window to see the world in a different way seems to be very important to Zeynep Hamedi. During our discussions, Zeynep Hamedi was firmly non-political and evinced no comments about current day politics in the country. But in a sense the cultural foundation is a political statement, a quiet yet definite one, as it provides clear access to major Western arts in a period when Turkey is questioning the balance between West and East in the country's make-up.

Though Zeynep Hamedi is now heavily involved with the orchestra, she does not regard herself as being specially musical and classical music is a language that she has had to learn, though her father did play. When she started working with the orchestra she attended every rehearsal possible, and studied the music, to learn more about the form. She continues to attend rehearsals when she can, but now out of a sense of delight saying that rehearsals are her favourites and that she enjoys seeing the players working on things. When travelling, Zeynep Hamedi now includes other orchestras and festivals on her itinerary.

Ekrem Yalcindag '195 Colors' from Borsan Holdings collection - photo Hadiye Cangokce
Ekrem Yalcindag '195 Colors'
from Borsan Holdings collection
photo Hadiye Cangokce
Though not a classical music specialist, Zeynep Hamedi has great faith in her team. They are in fact relatively small (the whole cultural foundation runs with under 20 people including the contemporary art museum) and she works in a team of eight. With open plan offices they are more of a family (going for lunches together) than a formal hierarchy. Her dream remains a proper concert hall for Istanbul, but this is currently financially out of the question. Their current Istanbul home is in fact a multi-purpose conference centre, rather than concert hall, and its rental is the orchestra's single biggest expense. It seats 1700 and they have over 1000 subscribers to their concert season, in addition to the free tickets for students and children, and school parties are encouraged to come to rehearsals.

Though the family spends 5 million dollars per year on the orchestra, this is carefully budgeted with a series of five-year plans to ensure development (the next five-year plan starts in February 2016 and we are promised more international touring from the orchestra). The foundation is still a family affair, and Zeynep Hamedi's biggest worry seems to be not the present but the future. She admits that ensuring the continuation beyond her and her brother's lifetimes is difficult, she is reluctant to force her children though the six members of the next generation (children of Zeynep Hamedi, her brother and her sister) are encouraged to participate in the foundation and attend its board. Music for Zeynep Hamedi brings out memories, and she feels that her own children's musical memories have all been happy ones so that there is hope.

Whilst sponsorship is common in wealthy families in Turkey, few seem to have done so in such a comprehensive and systematic way. Under Sascha Goetzel's leadership the orchestra has developed from a talented provincial group to one with a real presence on the international stage, and with regular collaborations with international artists.

The remaining concerts in the 2014-15 season all feature Sascha Goetzel conducting the orchestra, with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 (with pianist Arcadi Volodos) and Mahler's Fifth Symphony (9 April 2015), operatic excerpts with baritone Bryn Terfel (16 April 2015) and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (with violinist Julian Rachlin) and Brahms' First Symphony (30 April 2015). The season finishes on 14 May 2015, with Goetzel conducting the orchestra and the chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Verdi's Aida with Latonia Moore, Stella Grigorian, Carlo Ventre and George Gagnidze. There is also a programme of smaller concerts with the Borusan Quartet (made up of members of the audience) performing in a regular series at the Sureyya Opera.

If you are planning to be in Istanbul between September and May, then it is well worth checking the orchestra's programme and trying to catch a concert. And of course, there is their next tour to look forward to.

This is one of a group of articles exploring the work of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and Sascha Goetzel in Istanbul. My review of their performance of Haydn's The Seasons is already on this blog, and my interview with Sascha Goetzel is forthcoming.
Elsewhere on this blog:

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