wed 28/10/2020

Istanbul International Music Festival online review – East-West flair and finesse | reviews, news & interviews

Istanbul International Music Festival online review – East-West flair and finesse

Istanbul International Music Festival online review – East-West flair and finesse

Turkish soloists and orchestras in fine fettle and spectacular venues

Setting Puccini in stone: the Istanbul Festival Orchestra and director Cem MansurAll photos © Istanbul International Music Festival

Salzburg, Verbier and other high-end festivals have scraped together reduced, still impressive programmes over the summer for consumption online.

Salzburg, Verbier and other high-end festivals have scraped together reduced, still impressive programmes over the summer for consumption online. Not so starrily cast but hardly less engaging in situ is the adapted offering from Istanbul, mixing local and international artists, chamber and orchestral concerts with a flair that belies its reputation on the fringe of the major music festivals. In a series of pre-recorded concerts, streamed daily and mostly made available for a month thereafter (until mid-October), the organisers have taken the opportunity to range even further than their usual panoply of venues across both sides of the Bosphorus.

Several years of attendance at the festival have never taken me to the Roman Catholic St. Esprit Cathedral which forms a glittering backdrop to the festival’s second event, a quirky mix of Danzi, Bozza, Villa-Lobos and Bach for flute and cello. The festival’s weekend “Music Route” events usually take concert-goers down winding streets between the city’s uniquely diverse places of worship; in 2020, however, we leave the quiet streets of the Harbiye district for the Schubertkirche in Vienna, where the splendid young Selini Quartet – Russian, Romanian and Greek musicians of Viennese training but definite east-European character – present a well-balanced showcase of Mozart, Borodin and Schulhoff.

Customarily welcoming a train of foreign ensembles, as well as local and well-resourced outfits such as the Tefken and Borusan Philharmonic orchestras, the IMF has made an opportunity out of a Covid-crisis and created its own orchestra. Director Cem Mansur explains in a pre-concert talk at the Tophane Arts Centre – formerly yet another church, then a factory for cannonballs, now launching musical missiles abroad – that the programme is inevitably dictated by social distancing requirements. Still, sympathetically filmed between the building’s vast stone pillars, the ensemble fields an impressively rich collective sonority in well-loved miniatures for strings by Pärt, Piazzolla and Puccini. The Semplice Quartet in the courtyard of the Porphyrogenitus Palace, IstanbulThe Lutfi Kirdar International Convention and Exhibition Centre is a more familiar venue for old hands of the festival: a barn of a place put to convenient use while the long-promised new cultural centre on Taksim Square remains pie in the sky, but the musicians of the Tefken PO (a super-orchestra of the Black Sea countries, based in Istanbul and sponsored by one of Turkey’s construction and engineering giants) fill the space with an impetuous account of Brahms’s First Symphony under their young artistic director Aziz Shokhakimov: special credit to the alert and mellifluous first oboe and clarinet who follow every flick of Shokhakimov’s baton.

The IMF isn’t the place for “old master” interpretations, and a “Pastorale alla Turca” programme (pictured above) stays true to form with a startlingly fresh, back-to-first-principles reading of Beethoven’s Op.18 No.2 by the local Semplice Quartet: no less novel in its way than the premiere which gives the programme its name, commissioned from Turgay Erdener and scored for an east-west ensemble of quartet plus “Turkish” percussion, updating the sound that so captivated Viennese audiences in Beethoven’s time. The courtyard of the 13th-century Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus supplies another off-the-beaten-track venue.

More Beethoven in the raw comes from the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, rather lost in the open-air acoustic of the Odeon Theatre but still delivering a Fifth Symphony of considerable weight, discipline and traditionally moulded authority under the baton of Dağhan Doğu. With a few days of the festival still to go, there’s plenty to look forward to, culminating in Max Richter’s chill-out take on The Four Seasons – now proving its inventive viability well beyond the recording studio – with the Borusan PO and a new local star virtuoso, Pelin Halkacı Akın. Some of the concerts are free, a fairly nominal sum is charged for others; while flights to one of the world’s great cities remain out of bounds, even a digital evening at the IMF seems cheap at the price.

@peterquantrill

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