Yeşim Gürer Oymak © Ali Güler
Yeşim Gürer Oymak
© Ali Güler

There is no city in the world quite like Istanbul. Its superb geopolitical position, straddling two continents, and guarding the route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, has given it a rich and complex history, whose strata are visible in the city’s names, Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul; and in its buildings, from Roman ruins, Christian churches, Ottoman palaces and mosques. Now in its 45th year, the Istanbul Music Festival embraces and celebrates this extraordinary city, bringing together Turkey’s musical heritage with music from around the world. This year’s theme seems particularly appropriate to Istanbul: it is, simply “Unusual”.

The title reflects not just the city itself, but also the way the festival will present some of its performances, as festival director, Yeşim Gürer Oymak, explained. “Art production and its consumption cannot be independent of the conditions of the digital age we are living in, where we have infinite access to all art forms. We stream music and download concert performances and scores, anything! We have digital halls and opera houses in our living rooms. On the other hand, classical music audience is ageing everywhere in the world. So we have to think in new ways, to attract new audiences and present them with a new and fresh experience in new venues. A ‘usual’ presentation of classical music is not enough. We have to think more about interdisciplinary arts forms, to make connections between music, literature and other forms of arts. So we wanted to present a more flexible, varied concert programme with “unusual” connections which are nonetheless in tune with the context”.

These interdisciplinary connections can be found across the festival. Pianist Mikhail Rudy illustrates his recital on 31 May with art by Kandinsky and Chagall; Ensemble Soqqadro Italiano presents Vivaldi with visuals on 5 June, and on 20 June the Debussy Quartet teams up with the circus-ballet group Circa Ensemble for a programme of Shostakovich. Making unusual connections within music, David Greilsammer and jazz pianist Yaron Herman lead the Geneva Camerata through an eclectic and exciting encounter between Baroque and jazz on 12 June, which includes Rameau with Herman’s jazz improvisations and his arrangements of Purcell and Marais.

The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar

The range of venues at the Istanbul Music Festival continues to grow, with concerts in fifteen different locations. Yeşim Gürer Oymak notes that “One of the missions of the Istanbul Music Festival is to attract attention to the cultural heritage of the city. Listening to music in these venues, discovering new historical gems and being lost in time is an ‘unusual experience’ in itself.” Thus, the imaginative Music Route day on Saturday 3 June invites audiences on a walk through the city, following a programme of chamber music around six different historic venues. Looking to the city’s Ottoman heritage there are two concerts in venues that particularly suit the context of the music. The distinguished Şimdi Ensemble perform Sufi music in the heady, spice-laden atmosphere of the Grand Bazaar on 4 June, whilst “Rosery”, a project reflecting the cultural dialogue between the Ottomans and Iran takes place in the Garden of Galata.

These unusual performances aside, most of the festival is made up of “western classical” music, offering audiences major international artists and emerging Turkish talent. Matthias Goerne performing Schubert Lieder with Quatuor Ébène stand out as particularly notable visitors. Yeşim Gürer Oymak expressed her pleasure that pianist Fazil Say returns home again, saying “We have a great collaboration with him not only as a performer but also as a composer. We have a mutual trust which leads to create exciting projects together.” Say gives a recital presenting Chopin and Debussy alongside works by Ulvi Cemal Erkin and Ahmet Adnan Saygun, two members of the pioneering “Turkish Five”, on 15 June and plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 in A major K.414 with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra to close the Festival on 21 June.

Hagia Eirene
Hagia Eirene

The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra is the festival’s resident orchestra: Yeşim Gürer Oymak praises their dynamism and motivation, and the work done by director Sascha Goetzel over the last eight years in shaping their repertoire and identity. They open the festival on 29 May with Balakirev’s East-West fantasy Islamey, followed by Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor, played by the winner of the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition, Andrei Ioniță. At the Hagia Eirene, BIFO and Goetzel also give the Eurasian première of Philip Glass’ Symphony no. 11 which was co-commissioned by the Istanbul Music Festival. Yeşim Gürer Oymak explained how the project came about. “We gave this commission in 2014 to Philip Glass as a celebration of his 80th birthday. Two other commissioners, the Bruckner Orchester Linz and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, joined in this beautiful project as well and this work has really became a gift to Philip Glass for his birthday. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the première in New York but we heard a lot positive feedback about it”.  

As well as established Turkish artists such as as Say, the festival is looking to the future and since 2012 it has developed a young soloist project to nurture the next generation of Turkish musicians, focussing on a different instrument every year. Yeşim Gürer Oymak explained that this has become a great way to present young soloists to the festival audience as well as bringing them to the attention of the music industry. The musicians themselves are motivated by the challenge and opportunity that appearing in the festival in this way presents to them, and greatly value the experience. Following from the violin, cello, piano, and flute in previous years, this year it’s the turn of the viola, and the winner performs with the Dokuz Eylül University Symphony Orchestra on 17 June.

Summing up the Istanbul Music Festival, Yeşim Gürer Oymak told us: “The festival was founded in 1973 as basically a festival for classical western music, and its programme has always been based on this idea, but since its inception we have also included the best examples of Eastern music, and we aim to present more original examples of Ottoman Classical Music at the festival in the future”.


Article sponsored by Istanbul Music Festival.