Sitting on the boundary between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus. It seems appropriate that as the city is in the process of constructing its third Bosphorus bridge, Istanbul’s arts and culture scene is also crossing barriers. Coordinated by Borusan Culture and Arts (BCA), the country is proudly affirming its heritage on an international level. Although the city’s status as 2010 European Capital of Culture was undoubtedly a milestone, the umbrella organisation has only increased its activity since then. Istanbul has fast become a city with a burgeoning cultural scene.

The view across the Bosphorous © Katy Wright
The view across the Bosphorous
© Katy Wright

As the founder of the industrial conglomerate Borusan Holding, Asim Kocabıyık’s belief that economic growth must be accompanied by social growth has led to the company supporting a number of social responsibility projects. The two main emphases are on education and the arts, with BCA formed in 1997. The organisation allocates a total of US$7 million to music every year, with $5 million of this pool dedicated to the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (BIPO). Outside of this flagship ensemble, BCA funds music scholarships, buys instruments for young performers, and directs a number of other ensembles and musical activities. It established the Music Library and, more recently, the Music House, offering resources and a meeting point respectively for young arts enthusiasts. BCA is also midway through a ten-year contract as principal sponsor of the International Istanbul Music Festival, and have presented contemporary music events (Istanbul New Music Days) for five years. In a time where the sponsorship of classical music is changing drastically everywhere in the world, such financial support is invaluable.

Sasha Goetzel © Muhittin Tüylüce
Sasha Goetzel
© Muhittin Tüylüce
With BCA already the Turkish representative of the International Society for Contemporary Music, a member of the International Music Council and the European Music Council, the organisation’s international orientation is apparent. This urge to reach out beyond national borders is demonstrated particularly clearly by BIPO. Although relatively young (the 2013/14 season sees BIPO celebrate its 15th anniversary), the orchestra is broadening its horizons. Since the Austrian Sascha Goetzel was appointed Artistic Director and Principal Conductor in 2009, the orchestra has undergone a period of rapid evolution which shows no sign of slowing down. Having released their first CD in 2010 and their second in 2012, the high-profile ensemble are constantly adding new projects to their portfolio. The 2013/14 season sees the introduction of an event to complement the biannual Fazıl Say Festival: this year, a mini Beethoven festival. Recent years have also seen the BIPO establish an annual concert in memory of the Turkish diva Leyla Gencer (offering young sopranos a prestigious performance opportunity) and put on four semi-staged operas in the Lütfi Kirdar ICEC venue (with the most recent, Salome, earlier in 2013).

So what does Goetzel want from the orchestra? He aims to create “a body of sound with character”, distinctively Turkish and recognisable anywhere in the world. At present, 95% of the BIPO players are drawn from within the country, and Goetzel aims to capitalise upon this by sticking to their strengths. He sees folk dances as being a natural and instinctive component of the national identity – hence the dance-themed programme for BIPO’s second recording (Music from the Machine Age, a programme of Prokofiev, Bartók, Schulhoff, Ravel and Holst). By starting close to home, Goetzel aims to open doors further afield by gradually pushing the limits of the players through a number of projects. He also aims to challenge audiences: the BIPO were first to revive Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie in Istanbul after 40 years of neglect, and this season has already seen a concert of arias and duets by Wagner (significant considering that none of the composer’s operas has received a full staging in the country). But the orchestra is not stopping there: the possibility of a composer in residence has been raised, plans for international tours are being developed, and the chance of a competition for young Turkish composers is under discussion. Other plans in the pipeline include synchronising a laser show with a performance, and bringing together a DJ, painter and the BIPO. And all of this alongside around 20 concerts per year, including one with a commissioned work.

Sasha Goetzel and Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra
Sasha Goetzel and Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra
Ambitious stuff, particularly for a young ensemble. But Goetzel is determined that the process of development shouldn’t be rushed. The orchestra works on a four-to-five-year timescale, carefully planning around their fixed budget. Their stable financial situation gives the orchestra a positive outlook, but Goetzel insists that this is no reason for complacency. It is most important that the orchestra should be sustainable: after all, Goetzel’s plans for the ensemble have a long timescale. By constantly challenging the ensemble on technical and interpretational levels, he hopes to establish a level of musical excellence which will feed outwards across the rest of Turkish musical life, raising standards across the board. Although Goetzel’s vision for the BIPO may be long-term, the immediate impact is clear: the orchestra has an enthusiastic and devoted following.

Borusan Contemporary © Katy Wright
Borusan Contemporary
© Katy Wright
Outside of music, Borusan Holding supports contemporary art, owns a publishing house and finances educational scholarships and resources. Nestled under the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, their art gallery, Borusan Contemporary, is actually based in the headquarters of Borusan Holding and opens to the public at weekends. The gallery places a selection from the Borusan Contemporary Art Collection (the bulk of which is new media and minimalist art) alongside a temporary exhibition. The exhibition during my visit is “Vicious Circular Breathing” by the Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Lozano-Hemmer’s multidisciplinary show invites visitor interaction, at once entertaining and unsettling. Many of the installations within the office museum are site specific, whether Daniel Canogar’s light projection onto copper wires referencing the company’s activities or Erwin Redl’s LED light panels marking the way up the stairwell. The gallery offers a unique opportunity to experience cutting-edge contemporary art in Istanbul against the backdrop of the Bosphorus.

BCA is part of a wider trend in Turkey: a shift from state-supported cultural institutions towards corporate and private funding. The lack of sufficient governmental support has meant that a number of organisations have arisen to supply the resources which the state has not provided. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this financial model is its stability: at a time when the amount and structure of funding for UK arts is constantly in flux, BCA ensures that Turkish arts and culture has a solid base upon which it can develop.