Borusan Music House's fourth season opened with one of New York City's most respected contemporary music ensembles, Bang on a Can All-Stars, on Nov. 6.
In addition to performing music by American composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, the group of seven musicians gave a world premiere of Turkish composer Erdem Helvacıoğlu's “Tales of Oppression and Resistance.”
In four years, the Music House has kept up a commitment to new music, a genre that largely appeals to a niche audience. While their programming is a mercurial mix of pop, jazz, classical, contemporary and cutting edge, it's reasonable to assume that ticket sales for the first two pay for the rest. I applaud their steadfast priority in presenting new works because, frankly, who else will? It takes guts and investment to build an audience for the avant-garde. By now, we're starting to see the results: audiences are filling the place, and it has established an international reputation as a destination for new music ensembles.
For Bang on a Can, their reputation preceded them, as they've been on the cutting edge since 1987 and recognized globally as a distinctly innovative musical entity. With a long history of world premieres, collaborations with leading composers and multiple recordings, they were crowned with Musical America's “Ensemble of the Year” in 2005. Their appearance at Borusan Music House to open the 2013-14 season marked four premieres: three for Turkey and one for the world.
The seven excellent musicians were cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, clarinetist Ken Thomson, sound engineer Andrew Cotton and guitarist Mark Stewart, who acted as emcee.
“There's music in the streets of İstanbul,” said Stewart. “We feel right at home.” They and the music they performed set an auspicious precedent for the music house's new season.
David Lang wrote “Sunray” in remembrance of the cheery sun logo above the dry cleaning establishment next to his house. “Even on rainy mornings, I woke up to rays of the sun,” wrote Lang in his program notes. Inspired in 2006, when minimalism was still morphing from that of its progenitors Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Lang's score starts with repetitions that crescendo until they explode and break into a semi-rock beat texture. All the while, a persistent ostinato, appearing in various incarnations in each musician's part, beams through with the same consistent gleam the sun gives us.
Gordon's “For Madeleine” is dedicated to a woman who took him to concerts while he was little. The piece is his desire to say “kaddish” (prayer for the dead) for her. He suggests it with surreal slides on the guitar and distant wailing from the clarinet's muffled high notes, producing a free-floating mournful feeling. Wolfe's “Lick,” as Stewart explained, “is an exploration of the smallest unit in funk [music].” Wolfe took the unit and ran with it in a wonderfully syncopated and slightly erratic groove. She made it sound easy, but it was a tight, complex and exhilarating ride.
The title of Helvacıoğlu's electronic piece with bass and piano, “Tales of Oppression and Resistance,” pretty much says it all, but to actually experience it is life-altering. In 12 short sections, he takes us on a walk through a doomsday scenario of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” created with 21st-century technical materials. He writes in the program notes: “From racism to sexism, from dictatorship to imperialism, be it financial, cultural or religious, every form of oppression that we can think of, do[es] still exist in our modern times.” This post-mortem on humanity's idiocy is spelled out with short forlorn threnodies that powerfully augur strong warnings. It's no sugar-coated new-age disembodied lament; it's a devastating post-rock “Dies Irae.” Though some moments are tough to swallow, it's the tough love we all need in order to re-design the future.
All-Wagner program from BİFO
The Borusan İstanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (BİFO) scored another first in their 15-year history: an all-Richard Wagner program. Conducted by Gürer Aykal and featuring tenor Ünüşan Kuloğlu and bass-baritone Tuncay Kurtoğlu, the program in the Lütfi Kırdar Convention Center on Nov. 7 featured 12 selections focused on arias from the four operas comprising the epic cycle “Ring of the Nibelung.”
Wagner's musical style is substantively different from other music composed during his lifetime (1813-1883), largely because he drew inspiration from the timelessness of Norse mythology. Its vast, suspended dramatic nature and its vocalism are reserved for those singers who have the ability to sustain long powerful phrases over an equally powerful orchestra. Many singers have erroneously ventured into singing Wagner's operas, only to destroy their voices.
I must admit I was wary of attending this concert, as I feared it might be a tedious shouting match with unrelenting fortissimo and little nuance from singers aspiring to this genre. To my delight, I found that Kuloğlu and Kurtoğlu are unarguably suited for Wagner. Kuloğlu's stentorian heft and Kurtoğlu's mature and deeply resonant timbre, in addition to both singers' superb dramatic scope in portraying four different characters provided a compelling evening. Thankfully, neither exploited their heroic vocal stamina to the detriment of artistic expression. Kuloğlu's comic turn as Mime, the Nibelung dwarf, portrayed that manipulative personality with rich vocal dexterity.
The 11 arias and two orchestral interludes (“Siegfried's Rhine Journey” and “Siegfried's Death” following an aria), although programmatically dense, didn't feel as ponderous as they looked on paper. An entire evening of Wagner here, albeit heavily weighted with vocal selections, turned out to be a magical experience, and I was delighted to see that there were many Wagner fans in the audience. I'm sure I am not alone in looking forward to hearing more of Wagner's works in the future.