Thursday, 19 March 2015

More than just an orchestra - An encounter with Sascha Goetzel

Sascha Goetzel conducting the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra in Haydn's The Seasons photo credit Ozge Balkan
Sascha Goetzel conducting the Borusan Istanbul
Philharmonic Orchestra in Haydn's The Seasonsphoto credit Ozge Balkan
The Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel has been the chief conductor of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (BIPO) since 2009 and during this time he has transformed what was a talented provincial orchestra into one which, with appearances at the Salzburg Festival and at the BBC Proms, is developing a real international profile. As part of my trip to Istanbul to hear the orchestra performing Haydn's The Seasons, I was able to talk to Sascha about his work with the orchestra and their future plans.

BIPO is a private orchestra, created by the family which owns Borusan Holdings, Turkey's largest steel conglomerate, and funded through their Borusan Foundation. Sascha Goeztel was appointed chief conductor after an international search to replace the Turkish conductor Gürer Aykal who had directed the orchestra since its founding in 1999 (based on the Borusan Istanbul Chamber Orchestre itself founded in 1993).

When Sascha took over the orchestra he found a group of immensely talented young players (the orchestra's average age is around 30), but they had all been trained in different places and so played in differing styles. As he put it, they all spoke different dialects of music. His first task was to create a unified ensemble, by working with the orchestra having a lot of sectional rehearsals. Sascha also learned about Turkish culture, where classical music has only played a part since the 19th century, and Turkish folk music. In this latter, the dances are often in uneven rhythms and the players had a different way of instinctively dividing rhythms across the bar. Turkish music also has a huge amount of melisma in it. So Sascha worked with the players in these areas, playing music such as dance based pieces which built on their traditional styles.

The rhythmic and melismatic elements of Turkish music still imbue the orchestra's sound, and Sascha feels that the players understand the need for colouring, painting in sound in an extremely vivid way. A test of his early work with the orchestra was when he took them to the Salzburg Festival in 2010. He felt the orchestra played well, and the audience was stunned both by the sound and by the unexpected nature of a classical orchestra of such quality coming from Istanbul.

Sascha Goetzel and Borusan Culture and Arts CEO Zeynep Hamedi - photo credit Ozge Balkan
Sascha Goetzel & Zeynep Hamedi,
CEO of Borusan Culture and Arts
photo credit Ozge Balkan
From then on Sascha has tried to build on these foundations, and his aim is for the orchestra to become known for its top quality performances in certain types of repertoire. So far their CD's have all been themed, with the pieces being built around a particular story, often building on the orchestra's Eastern heritage (their most recent disc includes Balakirev's Islamey, Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherezade, music by the Georgian composer Ippolitov Ivanov and by a Turkish composer.) But Sascha is aware that he must develop the group's repertoire whilst preserving their very particular sound.

He feels that the Turks have an incredibly natural way of playing rhythms (during our discussions he characterises the playing of all the different orchestral nationalities) likening it to rock and roll, this is combined with an ability to use extreme colours and their not being afraid of playing which sounds harsh. 

The performance which I attended, of Haydn's The Seasons, was the orchestra's first performance of an oratorio and Sascha prepared the orchestra for it by doing their first all-baroque concert. During preparations for this he talked about the different ways of phrasing the music but also the history behind it (things we can take for granted), and he was pleased that it was very successful, something that he had not quite expected.

In recent years there have been many other firsts, such as performing Mahler's Sixth Symphony for the first time. Sascha finds such newness one of the exciting aspects of his job, as he helps not only his players but also the audience to learn new repertoire. As such, the performance of Haydn's The Seasons is both a milestone, and a very exciting event. (The hall is full for the performance, and the audience listens with close attention for the whole of the 140 minutes duration).

The length is one of the work's challenges for Sascha and the players. He talks about how the group makes a very exciting and passionate sound, with each note being given its own character. But that sometimes he has to bring them down, and his challenge in works like the Haydn is to ensure that the players play at the same level for two hours 20 minutes. To ensure concentration he performs it with only a 10 minute comfort break (when he and the orchestra stay on stage). But with the players working to produce extreme colours in sound, it is necessary to find a way to combine consistency with making the performance unique and exciting.

For Sascha, it is exciting to build an orchestra from scratch, and he feels that this is not something which has been done in Europe and the USA since the 19th century. He mentions with admiration the long period that Simon Rattle was in Birmingham and the way that he built up the CBSO into something rather special.

The orchestra is project based, but he has the same group of players who perform each time though he rotates the strings to provide experience for a wider number of players. He runs the rehearsals in English (his own is extremely fluent) and he says that the players understand English very well (I discover from one of my guides that many of the University courses are run in English).

Sascha Goetzel conducting the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra in Haydn's The Seasons photo credit Ozge Balkan
Sascha Goetzel conducting the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra
in Haydn's The Seasons - photo credit Ozge Balkan
The orchestra does only one or two projects per month in a season which runs from October to May (the summer months are too hot in Istanbul). The players come because they want to rather than because they are obliged (which is often the way in the state salaried orchestras) and each new project is exciting both for them and the audience. The orchestra was founded to give Turks a greater taste of classical music. Sascha feels that the orchestra's performances often take away the gap between performers and audience, breaking down the fourth wall.

But the long gap in the summer means that Sascha has to build his seasons carefully, with the autumn concerts working on known repertoire before introducing a number of challenges and spring is usually around when he brings in the big challenges such has Haydn's The Seasons. Two years ago, around this time of year, they performed Mahler's Third Symphony and Richard Strauss's Salome in the space of two weeks. He talks of this being one of the most exciting times in the orchestra's season and that the orchestra sounds different after undertaking a big challenge. The orchestra is clearly still learning, and Sascha admits that alongside passages which are amazing there can be some which are only OK, but he feels he needs to give the players room to make mistakes because only then can they learn and grow.

He has been assisted in his training of the orchestra by his father Peter, who had retired after a long career which included being concert master of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Peter now plays on the front desk of the orchestra (one of only four regular non-Turkish players) and has helped to bring on the string sound. The players still often lack self-confidence when it comes to the orchestra's playing and their performance at the BBC Proms, with the amazing audience response, was an important milestone in building up confidence.

In a world of instant communications, Sascha sees music (not just classical music) as an island for the soul, as something different to the rest of the world. So he wants each BIPO performance to be a chance for audiences in Turkey to build that island. In a sense his work in Istanbul is creating more a philosophy of art and culture, rather than simple performance. In this his thoughts echo those of the CEO of Borusan Arts and Culture (which runs the orchestra), Zeynep Hamedi who, when we talked to her (see my article on the blog), mentioned the idea that to be a citizen of the world you must listen to classical music and that BIPO's performances in Turkey opened a window to see the world in a different way. Sascha is clearly a conductor who is not only an admirable technician and orchestral trainer (which he undoubtedly is), but something who thinks about the role of classical music in the world, and this clearly meshes in with the interesting situation of BIPO performing classical music in modern Turkey.

Sascha Goetzel and Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra recording their second CD
Sascha Goetzel and Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra
recording their second CD
They plan to do more touring, and Sascha admits that they have had offers but that he wants to do it step by step. And he feels a certain responsibility for finding good repertoire for the tours, not just Brahms and Mahler. And the orchestra is also planning its first big tour of Turkey, to that they will play in the other big cities, taking their island to others. But such planning is difficult as they receive not state funding.

He talks about his goals for the orchestra. His first was to be able to play internationally and be recognised as a good orchestra, the second to be recognised for their extraordinarily exciting sound, and his next goal is to establish themselves in a wider repertoire. To this end, last year he did a Beethoven festival with the orchestra and next year is planning one devoted to American composers.

Now that they have started to establish the orchestra on an international level, Sascha feels that other Turkish orchestras are able to build on their success and one of his goals is to build not just an orchestra, but an orchestral tradition in Turkey. Politics and the general level of arts funding are two major worries, but Sascha feels that private funding of the arts and culture is developing in Turkey, following Borosan's attitude. And though the political situation, with the pull of the East, can be fraught he finds the Turks themselves to be relaxed and feels that creating music in Istanbul is very much akin to working in Europe in the earlier ages. The orchestra played a Turkish work at the BBC Proms in 2014 and it received an outstanding response, thus highlighting the orchestra's work bridging two cultures by letting the music speak.

Talking about his time in Istanbul, Sascha comments that it is crazy sometimes, but good crazy.

You can read my review of Sascha and the orchestra's performance of Haydn's The Seasons on this blog, along with Making music on the edge of Europe, my article about the orchestra and its work with an interview with their CEO.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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