Although I have been writing critical appreciations for more than 20 years, this is my first concert review! I have written notices for The Concert but this, of course, is a comic ballet by Jerome Robbins! Music is one of the vital ingredients of virtually every dance performance but, until now, I have written about the aural experience exclusively in the context of the movement it inspires. To break this duck, I could not have chosen more wisely as this opening concert for the 48th Istanbul Music Festival could not have suited this novitiate any better. 

Aziz Shokhakimov conducts the Tekfen Philharmonic © Istanbul Music Festival
Aziz Shokhakimov conducts the Tekfen Philharmonic
© Istanbul Music Festival

The Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra's programme comprised four popular, bite-sized favourites, leading off with the overture from Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus and concluding with Béla Bartók’s tribute to Transylvania in his Romanian Folk Dances. These brief works enveloped two more substantial pieces: Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 (known as the “Turkish”) and Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony.

The Boğaziçi University South Campus parkland setting nestled before two imposing buildings, separating the musicians from the Bosphorus (with the director liberally using a drone camera for perspective on this imposing waterway). Trees rustled in the wind and a small, socially-distanced audience was augmented by the free movement of people on their evening constitutional, presenting a challenge to the director, as members of the public occasionally merged with the rear echelon of musicians (all of whom that could play standing up were so doing). Cats wandered by on a regular basis and the most laconic spectator was a golden retriever who sat between the front of the audience and the musicians (although disdainfully facing the other way). S/he behaved splendidly but the many extraneous sounds included other dogs’ barking. Although it would have struck a discordant note against this particular programme, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helikopter String Quartet would have found some resonance with the sound of an actual helicopter gate-crashing the Turkish Concerto!

Emre Engin © Istanbul Music Festival
Emre Engin
© Istanbul Music Festival

These conditions presented considerable challenges to the musicians, particularly as the wind grew more excitable with the onset of dusk, but driven along by the exuberance of Aziz Shokhakimov’s conducting, the orchestra seamlessly integrated with its environment in a way that was refreshingly accessible and remarkably informal. This young Uzbek-born conductor burst onto the international scene, aged just 21, and next year will become music director of the Strasbourg Philharmonic. Judging by the gusto and unbounded enjoyment in his direction of these works, the good people of Alsace are in for an exciting ride. 

I was on safe ground from the off given that Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus is a musical rarity something akin to finding a hen’s tooth, since I know of no other ballet specifically composed by Beethoven. The whole festival is dedicated to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and this presentation of the overture was short, sharp and jolly, evoking the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment; far lighter and less dramatic than any music one normally associates with Beethoven, pulsating through to an exciting climax that disappointed only insofar as anticipating the excitement of a ballet that no longer exists.

Instead of the curtain rising on Beethoven’s long-lost ballet, the overture introduced a special violinist, Emre Engin. Born in Turkey, this graduate of the Royal School of Music completed his studies under Pinchas Zukerman in Manhattan. Mozart's Turkish opens with the full orchestra introducing the main theme before Engin’s solo became the dominant force initially in a luscious Adagio passage before imposing different melodies over orchestral accompaniment. The Turkish theme subliminally floated through the Rondo finale, styled in the social dance form of a minuet, as the integration of soloist and orchestra built to an exhilarating climax.

Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra © Istanbul Music Festival
Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra
© Istanbul Music Festival

I continued to feel at home with ongoing visions of dance through Prokofiev’s self-proclaimed Classical Symphony, a testament to Haydn but translated into an early 20th-century vernacular. The main theme of the third movement Gavotte was redeployed and expanded by Prokofiev to form part of his much later score for Romeo and Juliet (the music prior to the Capulet ball). The galloping Allegro themes of the opening movement – with the dominating influence of the woodwind section (the lead flautist was superb) brought back childhood memories of The Flaxton Boys, a 60s TV series for which it was the memorable opening theme.

After these substantial works, an orchestral interpretation of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances kept up the dance theme but hardly seemed necessary as an encore. The six movements are done with in under five minutes, giving splashes of colour in quick-fire dances that have a gypsy campfire feel (appropriate as the evening gloom rapidly descended) with hints of a polka in the various folk melodies, where once again that splendid flautist was to the fore. 

This performance was reviewed from the Istanbul Music Festival's video stream