Brahms Dead on Arrival

TurkeyTurkey Rachmaninoff, Brahms: Emre Şen (piano), Sascha Goetzel (conductor), Borusan İstanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, İş Sanat-İstanbul Hall, İstanbul, 4.11.2012 (JFL)

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.2
Brahms: Symphony No.1

Sascha Goetzel

At the heart of a recent press-junket to İstanbul lied the Borusan İstanbul Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a very young orchestra, sort of a bit older version of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, except 95% Turkish (a few Romanians sprinkled in; with a clear female majority) which is the result of actively appreciated circumstance. After all, the Borusan Foundation intends to further classical music in Turkey as something that is an integral part of the Turkish fabric, not superimposed from the outside—the route some high-spending orchestras in the Middle East are taking. In the 20 years since its foundation, the orchestra has become unquestionably Turkey’s best. That means little in relative terms; more in absolute—as their success on CD and with critics abroad confirms. They even impressed Markus Hinterhäuser enough that he had the orchestra play at the 2010 Salzburg Festival… admittedly in return for a healthy Borusan sponsorship of its visiting orchestras program.

It was good to have known something of the orchestra’s abilities—and to have them confirmed later that week, in rehearsal for the next concert, because their outing at the Türkiye İş Bankası (“İşbank”) İstanbul Music Festival in their İş Sanat Arts and Culture Centre was, in a word, pitiful.

The concert series is laudable and studded with the world’s foremost classical musicians, but the İş Sanat-İstanbul Hall located in the Bank’s İş Towers building, is the worst I have heard yet, although I’m assured, unfathomable though it seems, that İstanbul features even worse. It’s essentially a conference hall on the second floor of an office tower, with a ten foot ceiling and inch-thick carpet everywhere. Carpet, synonymous for comfort and luxury in the region, appears to be a universal affliction of Turkish concert halls. One simply cannot receive society in Turkey, so it seems to foreign eyes, in an uncarpeted abode. The air-conditioning hiss from above is no help. Phrases fall on the thick floor, lifeless. The strings sound flattened as if made of paper, and darkly synthetic.

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J.Brahms, Symphonies 1-4, G.Wand / NDRSO

It’s hard to tell in such a space what not to blame on the acoustic… a hall that is in no way adequate for the purpose of such concerts, a hall that kills more Brahms than it facilitates. The short and dirty of the evening: No Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto and Brahms First Symphony would have been better than under these conditions. To have been sitting way up front added chaos to muddle: As would be expected, the sound in the second row of that hall doesn’t come together at all, you hear individual bits and not all of them and those you hear are way off balance.

The noises emitted from the piano arrived in such erratic a state that critique or praise of the soloist—a joyously ardent, slightly overburdened Emre Şen—is impossible or at least inappropriate. The soloist’s comfort-level may have been expressed by the ponderously slow tempos that Goetzel adapted for the concerto, though. Interpretatively this was a heavy and cliché-flirting soup of high romanticism, passionately presented like Turkish desserts: dense and sweet… high fructose Rachmaninoff-syrup.

That there was no applause after the first movement was disappointing in one sense, namely that the music certainly asks for it and any audience not schooled in well-meaning but misguided concert etiquette would burst into applause. But it was understandably in another sense… in that it simply hadn’t been a rousing affair at all in that all-dulling acoustic.

The idea of an encore under the circumstances scared me; the devil of Träumerei was perceptible on the walls. But Emre Şen didn’t go down the path over-travelled, he chose a spunky piece unfamiliar enough to baffle me entirely (perhaps Saygun or Ulvi Cemal Erkin?), that reminded me of another superb encore piece, Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.

Moving all the way back to row Z for the Brahms Symphony paid some dividends. The harsh dynamic remained; much of the ungainly, flattened, and luster-lacking string sound too, but the severe imbalances were rectified. The second movement and the hectic, fluctuating, intriguing finale very discernable as having been well played, in an altogether exclamation-mark dotted performance for which Sascha Goetzel, a man visibly enjoying his grand gestures, employed mercifully quick tempos.

A week later, the orchestra prepared for the next concert, at a different, marginally better hall: Holst (Perfect Fool), Bernstein, and Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto with Victoria Mullova fiddling. The orchestra’s rehearsal space is the top floor of a BMW and Range Rover dealership, a good 15 miles and 30 minutes outside İstanbul, past the Belgrade forest and into the satellite towns illegally built and not likely to withstand the next earthquake,. As elevator doors on the third floor opened, the full musical brunt of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story Symphonic Dances” hit me and an equally curious colleague from Finnish Television in the face.

What we saw and heard, eavesdropping on one of their 4 ½ hour rehearsals, was an orchestra no longer dismal but borderline glorious. The Borusan Philharmonic is still a decent wind section away from true glories, but here they worked with relaxed enthusiasm in an acoustic that sound like the Concertgebouw compared to the İş Sanat-İstanbul Hall. Bernstein’s little firecracker-piece seemed to suit the mentality of the orchestra better than Brahms, too, and Bernstein knew, of course, when not to resist the temptation for clap and razzle-dazzle.

With such nascent quality, it’s good to know that the orchestra is set to move into a new, promising concert hall within the next year. The Borusan Philharmonic might then be heard in the decent acoustic its concerts (and the orchestra itself) deserve.

Jens F. Laurson