Turkish Composers: Who knew?

This is the eleventh season of Antalya’s main musical event, the International Piano Festival. The title doesn’t do justice to this series of concerts, which includes everything from the comedy team of Igudesman and Joo to Yosuke Yamashita’s Jazz Band to the Moscow Virtuosi. Tickets at 30 TL (about $20) are relatively expensive, compared to the 10 TL price of orchestra concerts and opera tickets here. Not surprisingly, much of the audience was foreign. I heard as much German and Russian as Turkish, and most of the Turks who did attend spoke English. This was confirmed by the fact that they laughed at jokes told in English, but it’s a safe bet that most Turks who’d pay 30TL to hear western classical musical are highly educated professionals. The acquaintances I ran into were in that category.

Ataturk Kultur Merkezi, home of Antalya’s International Piano Festival

Although the emphasis of this festival is on western classical music, various Turkish composers are represented. Turkey has its own tradition of classical music, called “Turk Sanat Muzigi” (Turkish Art Music), and instruments unique to that genre. But the music I’m talking about is western classical music by Turkish composers. I’ve studied music from the age of eight and spent six years at a Conservatory getting two degrees, but I’d never heard of a single Turkish composer before I came to Antalya.

And it’s not because they aren’t any good. The Borusan Quartet (an excellent ensemble made up of string players from the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic) played selections from three of them. The first was a neo-classical blend of pentatonic melody, driving rhythms and complex counterpoint. If I’d heard it on the radio I would have guessed Bartok. As it turns out, I did learn something at music school: When I googled A. A. Saygun ( the ony information about the composer in the program) I learned that Ahmet Adnan Saygun ( 1907-1991) traveled with Bartok collecting and transcribing folk songs, and that the London Times called him “the Bartok of Turkey”. But Bartok gets lots of ink in music history texts, and Saygun is unknown in America. Is this a result of western prejudice, or does Turkey just need better P.R.?

The next piece was by Fazil Say, the contemporary composer/pianist who is the Artistic Director of the festival. His Quartet Op. 29 used every special effect known to string instruments (col legno, harmonics, etc.) and was more about texture than melody, harmony or polyphony. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I would rather have heard the entire Saygun Quartet (they’d played only the fourth movement). The final selection added the forces of Muhiddin Durruoglu, the virtuoso pianist who’d played the first half of the evening’s program (including a Schumann “Papillons” with so much rubato it made me seasick). This Quintet by Erkin was closer to the style of Saygun modally and rhythmically, but was more melodic and less contrapuntal. A google search for Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906 –1972) revealed that he was in fact a contemporary of Saygun, and that both were members of what came to be called the “Turkish Five”, the pioneers of western classical music in Turkey.  As Bartok did with Hungarian folk tunes, these composers incorporated Turkish melodies into western classical compositions.

The surprises continued with the encore by Fazil Say, based on Mozart’s Turkish March. It began with the pianist playing a phrase of the original Mozart, followed by the quartet playing a jazz variation of the same phrase. At the conclusion of the melody the pattern was reversed, with the quartet playing a straight transcription of the Mozart and the pianist playing a jazz riff. Both the pianist and the quartet were stylistically convincing. I’m always impressed with those who truly excel in both jazz and classical music, but for these musicians to have mastered both foreign genres was truly extraordinary.

Before the concert, I’d spent the day at the beach. Swimming. In December. So, if you’re planning on visiting Antalya, consider coming in the fall. The weather’s beautiful, the tourists are gone and there’s a world-class festival where you can hear some of the great compositions of the standard classical repertoire, and a few pieces by Turkish composers which should be included in that category.

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2 thoughts on “Turkish Composers: Who knew?

  1. Love it! It made me want to be there…
    I also think that Turkish artists need better PR. I remember when Tuluyhan Ugurlu came to the US. My husband didn't understand why I so badly wanted to see his concert.
    I don't know if you've heard of him so I went and found a biography for you. On the 3rd paragraph, can see that there is a mention about Adnan Saygun and I found it quite funny:

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