Mannheim, Germany, is known as “Little İstanbul.” Twenty percent of the population is foreign-born and most of that percentage is Turkish.
There’s a historic water tower in the city center; it is now fondly referred to as “Galata Tower.” The result of this intense Turkish influence in this central German city, about a half-hour’s drive south of Frankfurt, is both a curiosity and a demonstration of the willingness to integrate knowledge about what is actually Turkish. Mannheimers got a stunning artistic example of this on March 5 and 6.
Fazıl Say’s newest composition, his “Hezarfen” Concerto for Ney-Flute and Orchestra, Op. 39, received its world premiere by the Muzikalische Akademie des Nationaltheater-Orchestras Mannheim, conducted by Dan Ettinger. The program, which also included Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major, was held in the Rosengarten’s Mozartsaal, a mostly well-appointed (a pipe organ was not included, to the detriment of one of the program selections I’ll discuss later) concert hall in a magnificently restored historic building. The “Hezarfen” concerto featured two of Say’s regular colleagues, ney player Burcu Karadağ and percussionist Aykut Köselerli, for whom he also wrote solo parts in his recent “İstanbul Symphony.”
The concerto describes episodes in the life of Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi, the daring inventor who made history with the first recorded human flight. According to the Turkish legend, Hezarfen donned a pair of self-designed eagle’s wings in 1630, and flew from Galata Tower to Üsküdar. Sultan Murat IV watched this incredible feat and rewarded him with a sack of gold coins. Then Murat, no doubt influenced by his skeptical palace advisors, called Hezarfen “dangerous” and exiled him to Algeria, where he died in 1640 at the age of 31. Say divided the concerto into four sections: “İstanbul 1632 Spring,” “Galata Tower,” “The Flight” and “Algerian Exile.”
“I wanted to create a radical meeting of East and West,” Say told me before the performance. “I added 18 additional instruments [to the standard Western orchestra] that I’ve found here and there, including such things as a vibratone, a Tibetan bowl, a sansula and an ufo drum. I researched some of these for a year and many I bought myself.” The Tibetan bowl, a ceramic played by circling the rim with a special stick, and the vibratone, a small metal column with a bell-like tone played with a mallet, were given to violinists on the outer edge of the orchestra. The sansula, a mini-kalimba, which is a set of metal prongs plucked by the fingers, and the ufo drum, an oval steel globular drum with a hollow, metallic timbre, remained within the percussion section.
To declare it “radical” might be correct on the basis of this exotic melding of instruments, but compared to the character of much of Say’s other music, the “Hezarfen” concerto was relatively easy on the ears. The beguiling sound of the breathy ney, especially in the carefully crafted phrases that conveyed bountiful amounts of hüzün (sorrow), the mood was mostly on the mellow side. From beginning to end, Say set up a continuous subliminal pulse via percussion instruments that created a perfect soundtrack to every painting of the “orientalist” genre. But despite that, it never got stuck in a cheesy ambient mode at all; the atmosphere was always energized and emotionally potent, even at pianissimo levels.
The four sections were not delineated by customary silence; instead, the ney’s voice was the connective thread that led us from that spring day in 1632 on Galata Tower, when Hezarfen nervously considered the hazards of his dare-devil feat, to his flight in which a flock of noisy geese accompanied him across the Bosporus, to the pain of exile in Africa. After the sensuous opening, outbursts from the brass and tympani announced sequences of dramatic action afoot, followed by comical duck calls. The tension of swimming strings and other edgy textures suggested the constant possibility of Hezarfen’s falling to his death. A finely built orchestral crescendo that suddenly stopped in medias res, leaving only the high scream of the ney, which then slowly floated down to the dust, became a haunting sentence that was punctuated at the end by a single drum beat.
The applause that followed was intense and prolonged. Screams of approval brought Say and his colleagues back to the stage numerous times. One German audience member’s response was “This piece has really opened my eyes to so much more!” I myself cannot wait to hear it again. But I must wait a few months; the “Hezarfen” concerto will be performed in İstanbul on Dec. 14, as one of the events of the annual Fazıl Say Festival with the Borusan Philharmonic.
While Say’s piece was clearly the celebrity centerpiece to the program, I need to rave about conductor and pianist Dan Ettinger. He was nothing short of extraordinary, both on the podium, and at the keyboard for the Haydn, which he also conducted. His way with this basic concerto, which every intermediate piano pupil learns, brilliantly illuminated it in ways that lifted it out of its triadic tediousness. His clever cadenza in the first movement, his strategic emphasis on certain bass lines, and his stretching key phrases with perfect elasticity made an essentially simplistic work into a polished jewel.
Then at the helm for the Holst, Ettinger steered the giant orchestra through the massively thick score that describes seven planets in our solar system. The last section added a female chorus that sang from an adjacent hallway upstairs. The Kinderchor des Nationaltheater-Mannheim, directed by A.C. Kober, did an expert job on a challenging part. My only disappointment was the prominent sound of an electronic organ used in place of the real thing. I was shocked to hear this in a country so famous for its organ building and organ playing -- the country that is the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest organists, Johann Sebastian Bach.