Turkey has a ‘new but passionate classical music audience ‘
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Turkey has a passionate audience despite its short history of classical music when compared with that of Europe, Sascha Goetzel, the artistic director and principal conductor of Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (BIPO), has said. Keeping its cultural origins, BIPO has become an international orchestra in a decade’s time, making it to the top of the Mount Everest of classical music, according to Goetzel, who is marking his 10th year with the orchestra.
When 10 years ago you started thinking about becoming the musical director of BIPO, what was your knowledge about Turkey and its people?
The country and its people were very well-known to me. I had holidays in Turkey, but I was never in Istanbul. The first time I had my dinner in one of the hotels with one of the best views, it was fascinating. Istanbul has something which is very unique in the world. For an artist, this is the cocktail of inspiration: You have history, tradition and young modern people striving for new goals.
The next day I had my first rehearsal with the orchestra it was exactly like that. It was a young group of musicians incredibly talented, but at the same time wanting to learn. From the first moment on there was a special chemistry between me and the orchestra.
How would you describe the journey?
When we started I said we are starting to climb the Mount Everest of classical music. We have to build base camp 1, 2 and 3, and then we can go to the top. We build these base camps with stages of repertoire. We started with the first and second CD. After two years together we went to the Salzburg Music Festival. It was the first time an international audience and critic could reflect on our work. After the base camp 3 which was our third CD, we were invited to BBC Proms, which is like the Champions League for classical orchestras.
BIPO was voted by BBC Proms audience at the top three performances of the summer of 2014. That meant we really made it to the Mount Everest of classical music. We feel very proud of what we have achieved and I am very happy that I could, together with the musicians, create for the first time an international orchestra coming out of this beautiful culture. This shall be the start for Turkey for many decades and centuries as a country of wonderful orchestras.
Is there a local touch that we can feel when listening to classic music?
Not as it used to be. When we go back to 50, 60 years ago, the local touch was very strong. The top orchestras had all specific sounds, but this got lost because of globalization and CD production, which is digital production that asks for perfection, not for artistic impact. With the perfection, there is one big side effect: It does not include human mistake. But human mistake comes out from something personal and it is connected to society and culture. To polish an orchestra sound that it becomes perfect takes away a lot of its color.
When I came here I made clear I want a Turkish orchestra; I want a sound color which is not exchangeable. So I was doing some research and found that in the Ottoman Empire you already had a very original sound atmosphere, color and rhythms. These rhythms were used as inspiration for a lot of music written in the Western classical music culture. The next step was to find pieces which used the original rhythms coming from the Ottoman Empire in a Western classical music piece.
I started first to perform those pieces explaining to the orchestra its origin and making the orchestra feeling actually very natural with their way of playing. Out of those rhythms connections, I created an atmosphere connection, because in the region starting from Istanbul to the East, you have a sound system which is very atmospheric.
So I cared about the origins of the culture. In the orchestra everybody can identify with what they produce, the sound and the language.
What do you think of the Turkish audience?
They are very passionate; they identify themselves very much with what’s happening in the stage. It seems to be a very close contact. It is not only a consumption, it is a high-level discussion. It becomes a personal experience; it is something you really feel emotionally inside.
How do you choose your repertoires?
The Turkish audience is still very young. Classical music audience has a very short history in Turkey compared to Europe where it goes back 400 or 500 years. So, many pieces have not been performed. Almost every year I do premieres for Turkey which are standard repertoire pieces in Europe. Of course, you care about your audience, but you have to keep a balance in order to also develop the orchestra, even sometimes risking the audience is not happy.
After the first five years I started to program specific pieces which are not so easy to listen to but very important for the orchestra to become a top orchestra.
How do you see the profile of your audience?
It has changed over the years. More and more young people are coming.
Turkey has passed from difficult times. There have been bomb attracts in Istanbul and a coup attempt. Has it ever crossed your mind to stop coming to Istanbul?
Of course it is not nice when you are in a hotel and 200 meters away from you there is a huge attack, where there are people killed and people suffering. You feel in the middle of it. I think as humans we are all in the same boat. If I am the music director of an orchestra I am responsible to make music to bring beauty into the hearts of the people.
For me it was never a question to run away just because I was almost in the midst of an attack. Once I was just going on the highway and there was a shooting just before my car. So if I was passing five seconds before, my car would have been hit.
I never had the thought to go back. It is destiny; it is something you cannot influence in real. As an artist you should always work with the culture of the whole country. You should work for the future of what is there.
Political statements directly given by artists are very dangerous. This is a daily response, but art is beyond that. We are responsible of creating something people believe in in the long term, becoming part of making a better society. This is what art can contribute to even in a small way.
I don’t find myself so important to give daily comments on politics; I find myself very important to make a difference for each individual talking to me or making music with me to give them something beautiful.
You live in Europe and Turkey is not enjoying a very positive image lately because of its domestic politics. Do you feel a problem being identified with a Turkish orchestra?
No. It is a problem I have never had. I work for the people.
Have you come across any prejudice about you working in a country that is seen as part of the Middle East, not exactly a region with the best reputation in the world?
No, I have not come across such a thing simply because it is the performance that decides. I have done something here I can say with full conviction that no other conductor has achieved in the last 10 years. I build from an unknown orchestra to a top known international orchestra. This is something incredible, something everybody looks at and says “wow.” And I am very happy that this part of the world became also part of my culture as a human being.
WHO IS SASCHA GOETZEL?
Born in Vienna, Sascha Goetzel had his first violin lessons with his father at the age of five and his first conducting classes with Prof. Richard Österreicher at 11. At 19 he was a member of the Vienna State Opera, where he was given decisive impulses by great conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Mariss Jansons and Seiji Ozawa. At 24 he assumed the musical direction of the Austrian-Korean Philharmonic in Vienna.
He has been an artistic director and principal conductor of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra for the past 10 years.
Goetzel was resident conductor of the Pacific Music Festival in Japan, musical director of the Attergau Orchestra Institute, which operates under the aegis of the Vienna Philharmonic, and principal guest conductor of the Kanagawa Philharmonic and the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne. After a six-year tenure of the music directorship of the Kuopio Symphony in Finland he remains a regular guest with the orchestra.