As a festival theme, “Darkness of Being, Lightness of Being” offers plenty of opportunities to contrast works: from grief to joy, from birth to death. The Istanbul Music Festival – now in its 47th edition – takes this theme, focusing on light and enlightenment for its ambitious series of 22 concerts in June. The festival features some great international soloists and takes place in a range of venues across this great Turkish city, from the Hagia Eirene and the Süreyya Opera House to the Grand Bazaar.

On the Music Route
© Ali Guler

Few festivals offer visitors such a great opportunity for geographical – as well as musical – exploration. Every year, the festival’s popular Music Route takes visitors around a particular district of Istanbul. In 2019, it focuses on Samatya, originally a fishing village along the Marmara Sea. One of the most multicultural quarters of the city, it is inhabited by a population of Turks, Greeks and Armenians. During the course of the day, visitors are taken from venue to venue by professional guides, including Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches to experience four musical programmes. From the Vivid Consort’s selection of Early English consort music and the Saygun String Quartet to an ensemble of flute, cello and harp and Turkish choir Rezonans, the day offers a varied menu.

Another opportunity to get out and about in Istanbul comes via the festival’s “Musical Excursion” down the Grand Bazaar, where the vivid sights and smells of one of the world’s great markets are complemented by a musical programme of the Ottoman classical tradition rubbing shoulders with pulsating Balkan and Cretan rhythms. A treat not to be missed.

The festival prides itself on promoting new music and the 2019 prospectus includes two world premieres. Turkish composer Zeynep Gedizlioğlu has been commissioned to write a work for piano duo Ufuk and Bahar Dördüncü, part of a recital including works by Shostakovich and Brahms. The other work, a co-commission with Sochi Festival, is by Alexander Tchaikovsky (no relation to Pyotr Ilyich). His work – entitled 3/7/12 – seems to reference the three card trick in the other Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades and will be performed by Yuri Bashmet and Moscow Soloists at the Hagia Eirene Museum. Bashmet, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award before the concert, programmes music by Pyotr Ilyich along with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Mahler’s string orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s quartet, Death and the Maiden.

© Ali Guler

The Istanbul Music Festival has become synonymous with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and its Principal Conductor Sascha Goetzel. They return with a mouthwatering line-up for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, featuring young stars Valeriy Sokolov, Narek Hakhnazaryan and Yulianna Avdeeva. This is followed by Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote in which the orchestra’s principal cellist and viola player personify Cervantes’ Knight Errant and his trusty squire.

Superstar pianist Yuja Wang makes an appearance, pairing two works from either side of the Atlantic. Gershwin’s jazzy Rhapsody in Blue and Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto share similar spirits though, both uplifting and light-hearted, giving Wang the opportunity to dazzle. She is joined by the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, making its festival debut, under conductor Gustavo Gimeno. Another star of the piano firmament is Seong-Jin Cho, 2015 winner of the International Chopin Piano Competition. He makes his Turkish debut in the festival's opening concert, playing Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. Cho performs with the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra, which has a sumptuous all-Russian programme later on which includes Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 (with German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott) and Tchaikovsky’s harrowing “Pathétique” Symphony.

Baroque lovers are well catered for with the tremendous Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and RIAS Chamber Chorus performing choral music by Bach, including the latter’s Dixit Dominus.

© Ersin Durmus

Chamber music plays a strong part in the festival. Piotr Anderszewski tackles Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on the stage of the Süreyya Opera House, while Boris Berezovsky is joined by cellist Alexander Kniazev for a programme of sonatas by Strauss, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. Perhaps the plum in the “Chamber Music with Stars” line-up is an all-Beethoven piano trios evening with Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov. Frequent collaborators in concert and on disc, these musicians share a very special chemistry which will surely transfer to the İş Sanat concert hall.

For something a bit unusual, try the Four Musketeers of Piano, a quartet of pianists who play a selection of the classics – from the Tannhäuser Overture to Zorba the Greek! – in four-piano arrangements.

No Istanbul Music Festival would be complete without Turkey’s greatest classical star, Fazil Say. He saves it late in the day, however, appearing in the closing concert to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, joined by another debutant orchestra, the Shanghai Philharmonic under conductor Liang Zhang. Dvořák’s spirited Sixth Symphony is a great way to bring down the curtain on what promises to be another exciting festival edition.

Preview sponsored by the Istanbul Music Festival