İstanbul Music Festival’s panoply of colors, pianist Huangci’s fireworks

June 11, 2012, Monday/ 17:59:00

L’Arpeggiata, an early-music ensemble based in Paris, presented its “Dances of the World” concert at the Aya İrini Museum on June 6, the sixth concert of this year’s İstanbul International Music Festival.

The title, “Dances of the World,” is misleading, for what we witnessed was less about dance and more about a musical tour of the world. Director Christina Pluhar, who plays one of the largest theorbos (a long-necked lute) I’ve ever seen, has assembled a team of musicians who play Indian and Russian percussion instruments, a harpsichord, guitars, the oud, the ney, the cornetto and an electric Indian violin. They, and two singers, created a colorful potpourri of traditional music culled from the four corners of the globe.

The Austrian native Pluhar, who conducts extensive research to find ancient scores in dusty archives and obscure villages, has unearthed a rich treasure trove of goodies to arrange for these hand-picked musicians who largely improvised -- by design -- their way through the concert. Thus, specific dances, like the tarantella, Indian, flamenco and Sufi whirling, which are also based on improvisation, are included in their repertoire to complete the traditional picture.

For the dances, Anna Dego provided the twitchy antics of the tarantella -- a voodoo-invoked effort to cure the poisonous bite of a tarantula spider, Talip Elmasuyu whirled in Mevlâna’s circular meditation while Shany Mathew, dressed in Eastern Indian finery, enacted little serio-comic dramas with sparkling charm, expressive eyes and the graceful movements of the traditional Indian dance. The dance aspect was under the direction of Vincenzo Capezzuto, a choreographer who is also a fine singer.

Capezzuto, who did disappointingly little dancing, did sing captivatingly, though, several Italian songs and arias alongside soprano Raquel Andueza. Both singers were vocally and dramatically expressive, especially during his charming rendition of “Pizzicarella mia” and her performance of “Eraclito amoroso” by the 17th-century composer Barbara Strozzi.

L’Arpeggiata’s 25 numbers on the program, performed non-stop, was a mighty whirl of worldly musical flavors with arrangements that were expertly timed and scored, even though they were ostensibly improvised. The list of numbers on the program, however, were not performed in the printed order, so it would have been nice to have had some announcements along the way to inform the audience of what we were hearing.

Claire Huangci’s piano pyrotechnics

American pianist Claire Huangci was the sizzling grand finale of İstanbul Recitals’ fifth season of presenting monthly concerts at The Seed at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum. On June 7, she flew in like a miniature stealth bomber. Though this young artist might be diminutive in stature, she’s indisputably a tower of power. Her program of J.S. Bach, Debussy (to celebrate the presenter’s “Season of Debussy”), Chopin, Scriabin, Schumann and Tchaikovsky was consistently spellbinding with unflagging energy throughout. Especially compelling was her treatment of Bach’s “Italian Concerto,” for which she injected lots of electricity, particularly in the third movement’s veins of interwoven melodies at top speed. But it wasn’t just the speed itself that commanded attention, it was the way the piece was emblazoned on her entire personality, almost burning holes through the keyboard on its way to our ears.

She continued to set fire to the piano with her rendition of Chopin’s “Ballad No. 1,” where she built several critical climaxes with feverish devotion, and Scriabin’s “Sonata No. 5,” in which she luxuriated in the composer’s quirky color scheme with attention to sonority and handled the knuckle-busting bravura with carefully modulated tempo control.

Robert Schumann’s 13-piece “Symphonic Etudes” gave her an opportunity to maintain a long poetic narrative, but I would have preferred a more insightful approach to the deeper emotional aspects. Not to worry, as this artist grows, that kind of seasoning will come. Huangci’s grand finale was Mikhail Pletnëv’s deft arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Ballet Suite,” an escapade of effervescent gavottes, blissful reveries and concerto-proportioned pyrotechnics, all delivered with fiery aplomb. Keep an eye out for the reappearance of the spitfire Huangci in İstanbul next season.

Women composers in history

“Women Heroes of Music,” the İstanbul Music Festival’s concert on June 8, was organized by violinist Cihat Aşkın and the İstanbul Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Hakan Şensoy in the Süreyya Opera House -- the perfect venue for the intimate and interesting collection of music by women composers.

Famous women composers like Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach and Dame Ethel Smyth were juxtaposed alongside lesser-known ladies from 1740-1940 and one contemporary composer, Ayşegül Kostak. But unnecessarily lesser known, in my opinion, for some of the pieces were lovely surprises. Another surprise was learning that the ever-popular “Nihavent Longa” was written by Kevser Hanım (1887-1963). Six instrumental and vocal works by Turkish composers played by the orchestra and sung by sopranos Pervin Çakar and Yaprak Sayar were written in the 1800s, a time when traditional Turkish music was being profoundly influenced by European music, and much of the Ottoman court music was put into notation by scribes. The fascinating results appeared at the turn of the 20th century when Eastern modes and Western formats were combined, and then published. Women musicians and composers at this time were not hidden but celebrated along with their male counterparts.

In addition to Aşkın’s brilliant solo contributions (especially to Leyla Saz’s 1908 “Neşide-i Zafer Marşı”), other soloists were Şehvar Beşiroğlu on çeng (harp) and kanun, Sühendan Çetin on ney, Neva Özgen on kemençe, Elif Tuğçe Korkmaz on tambur and Canâ Gürmen on piano. Salih Kartal’s orchestral arrangements of “Sarı Gelin” and others were especially beautiful.

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