The Premiere (and The Politics) of Fazil Say’s New Symphony

TurkeyTurkey  Beethoven, Say:  Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Gurer Aykal (conductor), Fazil Say (piano), Carolina Eyck (theremin), Bulent Evcil (bass flute), Cagatay Akyol (bass recorder),  Istanbul Music Festival, Halic Congress Center, Istanbul 23.6.12 (AM)

Beethoven:  Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Say: Symphony No.2, Op. 38 “Mesopotamia”, commissioned by the Istanbul Music Festival, world premiere

Judging from the twenty minutes of standing ovation he received at the end of the evening, Fazil Say’s supporters are every bit fiery as his adversaries. Granted a good deal of that approbation was towards the premiere of his new symphony: Mesopotamia, Op. 38, it is hard to deny the palpable sense of solidarity against the pianist/composer’s legal troubles interspersed in there as well. Mr. Say’s admirers were many this evening. They are, however, vastly inferior in number outside the concert hall. I realize  It is tragic, bordering on absurd even, to be speaking of a pianist’s ‘supporters’ and ‘adversaries’, but if you have not heard the news, Fazil Say has recently been charged, and his case: ‘publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation’ has been approved by a court in Istanbul. While such incidents are many in number in Turkey, they very rarely go all the way to trial. In Fazil Say’s case, the complaint filed by ordinary citizens against the artist was turned into an indictment by a public prosecutor, and the indictment, has been approved to go to court. The trial begins in October and carries a potential sentence for Fazil Say up to 1.5 years in prison if convicted.

Fazil Say’s rift with ‘a part of the nation’ has been going on for a number or years now. And call it irony, but innocently enough it all started musically when he spoke (or rather, tweeted) about the musical inadequacy of a certain Arab-influenced genre of music which is very popular in Turkey. Responses poured in, and for a while the argument was not political in nature, but -insults aside, it was a healthy musical discussion bordering on sociological traumas that Turks go through almost every decade with each regime change. It was when the media in its usual conformist fashion, picked up, headlined and fanfared the story, painting Mr. Say in a negative light, that he quickly became a ‘persona-non-gratis’ and anyone who sided with the pianist a ‘classical music snob’ or worse, a ‘militaristic ultra-secular White Turk’ (White Turk is a term coined to mock the segment of the public who are sternly Western-oriented and secular). The problem up to this point was not the tone Mr. Say or his foes used during the discussion, which might be considered demeaning at times, but the media’s frenzy to lynch an artist for speaking his mind, if his/her mind does not conform the prevailing political gamut.  Healthy public discussion is not a common occurrence in Turkey, and after days of reciprocal invectives and name calling, the discussions waned down- but not before gaining Fazil Say many new Twitter followers, -among them law enforcement agencies, and apparently quite a bit of tattletales who decided to make it their civic duty to report on Mr. Say’s online activities to prosecutors.

And that’s exactly what a number of officious Twitter followers did upon spotting a few tweets from Mr. Say poking fun at a muezzin during the call to prayer, and quoting a line from the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam. “The muezzin finished the call to prayer in 22 seconds. What’s the hurry? Is a raki table waiting for you?” Say wrote. And the quote in question was typical of Khayyam’s oeuvre and questions the hypocrisy of religious institutions. The talebearers, however, were seemingly quite offended by Fazil Say’s tweeting the poet’s line “You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you? You say two houris await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?” that they decided to file an official complaint with the public prosecutors. It would have been one thing if the muezzin in question felt insulted and brought a libel case against the pianist. He didn’t. Instead, the prosecutor’s office decided that the quoting of a freely available book was a viable case to talk to court. The court concurred and saw grounds for a criminal trial. Fazil Say, in return, has announced that following the finalization of his case he will leave his Turkey and move to Japan.

Keeping over 100 of her journalists in jail, Turkey is not exactly a beacon in freedom of expression. Still, I find it hard to believe that Mr. Say will be convicted. Now that the episode has been heavily reported around the world and petitions have been organized, the charges will most likely be dropped during trial. But the damage is already done. Going forward, Fazil Say and others like him will have to watch what they’re saying about religion in private or online. Mr. Say has since closed his personal Twitter account and instead has been using an official Fazil Say account to announce his professional appearances and endeavors.

It’s just another one of many ignominious chapters in Turkey’s attitude towards the art, the artists and but more importantly, dissent.

There are many petitions currently open for Fazil Say. The most popular one seems to be closing in on 7,000 supporters.

First things first: Borusan Philharmonic is an amazing orchestra. Very competent and perfectly in sync within each section and as a whole, the orchestra under Gurer Aykal’s baton gave an astonishing performance in both the Beethoven Concerto and the Say Symphony. They were quite comfortable in Beethoven, which is to be expected, but what really deserves praise was their aptitude in handling the complex orchestration of Fazil Say’s new symphony.

Some of the finest moments of Beethoven’s C Minor concerto were before Mr. Say’s injection when the orchestra played the exposition smoothly but with occasional exclamations from the bass section. Mr. Aykal’s choice of tempo was tepid, not too fast but forward driven and determined. Borusan’s ease with the material dropped slightly with the piano introduction, as Mr. Say’s solo entrance was noticeably faster than Mr. Aykal’s conception. The orchestra decidedly kept its mellower tempo when they started playing together, but the pianist gave his own cues to the orchestra rather than playing along, and as a result a slight disaccord between the pianist and the orchestra surfaced many times during the first movement. Mr. Say’s best contribution to the first movement was his own lengthy cadenza, which was both virtuosic and idiocentric. It created a rather nice juxtaposition against the orchestra’s classic take on the piece. Mr. Say himself mellowed down during the Largo and presented a lush reading with just the right amount of pedal. The Rondo movement was where it all came together though. Mr. Aykal and Mr. Say finally settled on a tempo suitable to both of them and glided through the rest of the concerto, with nothing spectacular to write about, but still on a very high note.

We were treated to an extensive footage of Fazil Say talking about and playing themes from his new symphony on a giant projection screen before the beginning of the second half. Mr. Say’s new symphony, in his own words is ‘his masterpiece thus far’. He spoke about the stories the symphony tells of Mesopotamia, its people and its nature, but luckily the rhetoric wrapped up just in time before it started getting into hyperbole mode.

The ‘Mesopotamia’ Symphony is notable for its demand for a large orchestra (130+ people, no less), including a theremin, and two additional bass woodwinds in the shape of a bass flute and a bass recorder. The theremin plays quite a big role throughout the symphony as an alternative angelic voice to the often frantic infrastructure of the music. The flute and the recorder mostly provide programmatic effects voicing two children but at times taking on other roles such as representing the howling effect in the ‘Moon’ movement.

The first three movements are highly suggestive of Bartok. Having the folk element built right into the foundation makes the resemblance inevitable by default, but the analogy is also apparent in the music’s interplay between sharp percussive instruments and the brass section (who both did an excellent job and ). The element of ‘death’ prevails throughout the symphony and it is emphasized rather blatantly in complex brass harmonies and dissonant orchestra hits.

The music slows down to a pensive mood briefly with the ‘Melodrama’ section which is a solo movement for Theremin, played proficiently by Ms. Eyck. The evocation of ‘Moon’ employs Mr. Say’s muted string-plucking technique that he famously used in his ‘Black Earth for solo piano’. Mesopotamia Symphony uses a piano, but the instrument never takes the center stage, neither visually or sonically. Mr. Say who took the pianist duties for his symphony could hardly be seen or heard during the performance except the pensive and mysterious ‘Moon’ movement. Fazil Say, commendably, has not taken the easy route and has refrained from writing the following ‘Sun’ movement as Moon’s direct opposite. ‘Sun’, while louder and more vigorous, is not jovial. Instead, the dawning of sun is represented by an aching brass section making the composer’s picture of the Mesopotamian Sun dry, scorching and often times a nuisance in daily life.

The music grows violent again as the rest of the symphony focuses on war. The percussions take more of a center stage, and the sweeping strings race hard to make themselves heard amongst the rumble.

It is too early to state whether Fazil Say has invented his own musical language yet. The symphony is multi-layered and complex, often accentuated with lopsided percussions and makes clever use of extracurricular instruments to tell its story. What is disappointing is that it appears as if the composer has used most of his original ideas in the first half of the work, and let the second half drag on without bringing many new ideas into the mix. He knows how to make use of orchestral effects very well, but it seemed to me as if he relies on this particular talent a little too much. All in all, the symphony is a solid work that will benefit from repeat performances.

Alain Matalon