Turkey’s cello extraordinaire Benyamin Sönmez dies at 28

December 02, 2011, Friday/ 17:47:00

Young Turkish cellist Benyamin Sönmez passed away on Wednesday at the age of 28, the classical music portal Andante reported on Friday.

One of the brightest stars of the world of cello, the young virtuoso reportedly died of a heart attack at the Ankara home of a friend. His funeral will take place in the southwestern town of Fethiye, the Andante report said, although the date has not yet been released.

News of Sönmez’s death broke to the public on the social networking site Twitter on Friday morning with a post from Turkish composer and pianist Fazıl Say before midday: “This is very sad news. Cellist Benyamin Sönmez has died of a heart attack. It is so saddening. He was so young. This is very bad news.”

A popular and charismatic figure on the Turkish music scene, news of Sönmez’s death was quickly listed as a Trending Topic on Twitter. Leading Turkish pianist Gülsin Onay, a friend of the young musician, posted a message of condolence to Sönmez’s family and loved ones on her Facebook profile, “We have lost a young genius and a marvelous cellist. He was an extraordinary talent, a big artist and a big loss. We played together in the Çaykovsky Trio, and it was an unforgettable experience. He was only 28. We are all in shock; may he rest in peace and his musical legend live on.”

Onay went on to post a comment that Sönmez had made in 2009, “Even though [my country] doesn’t pay for my cello, deems its pop musicians as more important than me and even makes me wait in visa queues with my passport, I would never give up on my country.”

Nicknamed “Sultan” by the great Russian teacher Natalia Gutman, the German-born artist had a reputation for being a fighter. Sönmez’s father, a talent saz player, supported his son’s aspirations, yet the road to success was not easy. Deemed a hopeless musical prospect and rejected by the Ankara State Conservatory at the age of 13 and faced with severe economic hardship in the ensuing years, the young cello virtuoso overcame his harsh beginnings to become one of the shining stars of classical music in Turkey.

Having persevered to gain acceptance into the conservatory just a year later, Sönmez’s blossoming talent was spotted by Russian violinist Yuri Bashmet who quickly recommended him as a student to the brilliant Natalia Gutman. Sönmez promptly accepted the offer, leaving Turkey in his late teens to submerge himself in his musical aspirations. Gutman helped nurture his talents at the Stuttgart Music Academy and later, the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

Amongst Sönmez’s many accolades, the most glittering perhaps came from the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who described Sönmez as “one of the most successful young representatives of the new generation of cellists and unquestionably a genius” shortly before his death in 2007. The first time he saw Sönmez play, Rostropovich reportedly said, “A Turk is a Turk anywhere, but this is the first time I’ve heard a Turk play like a Russian.”

The two went on to develop a close friendship with Sönmez always maintaining that Rostropovich was the figure who had influenced his music most.

Throughout the course of his devastatingly short career, Sönmez, a frequent performer in concert halls in Turkey, held audiences spell-bound on stages across the world. Festivals he played at include the Manchester Cello Festival, the Adam Cello Festival, the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, the İstanbul Music Festival and the Tivoli Music Festival. His musical repertoire ranged from Marin Marais from the 17th century to the work of 20th century composers such as Arvo Part, Giya Kancheli, Alfred Schnittke and Benjamin Britten.

Speaking in an interview with Today’s Zaman in March, Sönmez said that playing the cello was not his decision, “Coincidences and incidents made us come together, and we [Sönmez and his cello] have been a very good pair for 14 years now. My cello is like my psychologist. It always listens to me and reminds me that the greatest remedy in life is music itself. My cello is my soul. I need it and it needs me.”

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