At the top was the premiere of a new work by Armağan Durdağ, his “Panthalassa / 3 Mart 1975.” The something old was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique,” and pianist Peter Jablonski performed Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major. Due to its jazzy character, the Gershwin was the something blue, although the something new was also blue. I’ll explain later.
This program was a pleasing set of contrasting works, although what they shared in common was the generous use of drums and tympani. From the opening salvo of the Ramadan-style drums in “Panthalassa’s” explosive beginning, to the drum flourishes that began the first and third movements of the Gershwin concerto, the audience was administered large doses of volume via percussive impact.
“Panthalassa” is the ancient Greek word for “all seas,” describing the super-ocean the Earth was eons ago before continents had formed. The “3 Mart 1975” serves to commemorate the founding of İstanbul Technical University’s State Conservatory of Turkish Music. And to commemorate it even more, the institution, which commissioned the work, requested the inclusion of Turkish instruments. So Durdağ scored parts for two zurnas, the reed instruments that are played in traditional Anatolian weddings. I personally find the sound of the zurna exciting and to me it’s one of the treasured sonic symbols of Turkish history. But used here, the effect of their piercing sounds was to practically obliterate everything else around it. It was so alarming that they perhaps symbolized the powerful screams of the oceans as the planet divided Pangea (the land mass) into continents, or even the Earth’s blood-curdling shriek at the impending desecration by its inhabitants.
Durdağ used the interval of a fifth to great effect: He tuned the zurnas to it and the orchestra played an extended and sustained section of this interval, punctuated by ominous, fading drum beats underneath to give a hollow, forlorn feeling and also paint a vast expanse. After a curious clarinet solo that involved squealing slides, another contrasting textural section of little staccato note-points from all the woodwinds emerged. Durdağ’s orchestration rates big points for its color and texture; however, I think the extreme volume load in the beginning and the middle stole the impact from the end, rendering the final moments underwhelming.
Durdağ’s descriptive impetus for this piece’s sonic vista has to do with his personal and ecological connection to Mother Earth. “The clarinet is the crying voice of a dolphin who is young, passionate and very sad,” he explains. “He’s just witnessed the dying heartbeat of the ocean and wants to bring it back to life. To compose this piece, I painted my study room ocean blue; that sweet dark blue I was swimming in -- it helped me a lot.”
Gershwin’s only piano concerto (the only one named as such, as his famous “Rhapsody in Blue” and two other lesser-known works are also written for piano and orchestra), which successfully combines the classical and jazz genres, doesn’t get enough concert hall play, in my opinion. It’s a bluesy, jocular work that has much to offer by way of the atmosphere it creates, and the piano’s role is less of a front-and-center showpiece and more of a team player. It’s not rich in award-winning melodies like his other, more famous works, although the second orchestral theme in the first movement is full of cinematic sweep. The opening movement is a fun piece full of impudence and high-jinks into which Gershwin wove popular dance forms of his era, like the foxtrot and the two-step.
The second movement begins with a plaintive oboe solo with mournful clarinet chords underneath. The piano’s entry is accompanied by the violinists strumming their instruments like guitars. This movement toys with the bluesy third in clever experimentation and its exquisite ending has sublime orchestral chords floating over quiet octaves in the piano. Jablonski here brought out the most expression and resonance from the concerto overall; actually, it was the only movement where I could hear what he was doing. In the other movements, he was largely covered by the orchestra, especially sections involving the drums and tympani.
The third movement brought more decibels from the percussion section, particularly pounding from the drums -- an excessive amount at the end. The piano part wasn’t exactly the most inspired material at this point, but it didn’t need to be buried in such bombast. For his encore, Jablonski rewarded us with the first of Gershwin’s “Preludes for Piano,” in which he tossed off the witty riffs with aplomb.
The ‘Pathétique’s’ palette
Thankfully, after the first two pieces’ collective battery on the ears, the “Pathétique” began with an extended moment of silence, after which a soft bassoon solo set the tone for some sweet and tender contemplation. Its splendid theme, used for so long as music that spells ultra-romance, shimmered in the strings like a rainbow. Şensoy pulled out a very taut performance from the orchestra, where the soft moments were delicate, yet still full of dynamic tension.
The second movement was loaded with grace, warmth and expressiveness; the third, a scherzo and march, was nobly executed, except for the loud blasts from the lower brass, which should have been more skillfully modulated in the limited acoustics of the CRRKS. The final movement is like a slightly bemused and regretful afterthought, with wrenching phrases in the strings and somber woodwind solos. At the end, it takes us to the grave with an extremely slow and seemingly endless decrescendo to where we could have heard a pin drop. Unfortunately, a voice in the audience ruptured this rapturous moment with his own loud “bravo.”