Ancient church organ finds second life in İzmir

Ancient church organ finds second life in İzmir

Nazlan Ertan - İZMİR
Ancient church organ finds second life in İzmir A remnant of İzmir’s Franciscan heritage, the Catholic Church of Santa Maria stands modestly near the city’s most famous church, Saint Polycarp. Ever since its construction in 1341, Santa Maria’s sober building has shaken with several earthquakes and stood against a few city fires. Destroyed in the 1688 earthquake, it opened its doors a decade later, thanks to the support of the Dutch community in İzmir. When a fire destroyed the church in 1889, Emperor Franz Jose financed its restoration. 

Today, the modest church, ornamented with the scenes of Madonna and baby Jesus as well as statues of the Virgin, is home to an annual musical event that revolves around the church’s organ - a remnant of the 19th century that was restored three years ago.

“I grew up in that church,” said Lucien Arkas, the third-generation boss of Arkas Holding and its head of executive committee. Arkas’ grandfathers emigrated from Marseille to İzmir in the 18th century and traded in this city for centuries. “I have always wondered why there was not a church organ. I was told that there was one but it did not work for several decades. I was persuaded that it could be restored,” he said. 

The church’s organ, built in the 19th century in Verona, Italy, enjoyed a very short life before the earthquake and other damages had silenced its 1600 pipes and no one knew how to repair it.

Arkas does not easily take no for an answer. Despite claims that winemaking was difficult in Turkey, he launched the LA Wines in 2010 and called one of his signature wines “Mon Reve” – my dream – as a wink to a dream many people found unrealistic. In 2011, he launched Arkas Art Gallery at the heart of the Aegean port city, and brought in a steady line of prestigious exhibitions from old Turkish masters to European pop art names.

The man to restore the organ was to be found in Italy. Approached by Arkas in 2014, Antonio Bianchin said he was ready to devote the next six months to the restoration of the organ, but he had a condition: there would be a concert every year so that many people – Christian and non-Christian – would witness the second life of the organ.

Arkas agreed readily and the tradition of Saint Maria Concerts was born in 2015. The leading role was played by the Arkas Trio, established in 2011 and since then performing in Turkey and abroad, including in Germany’s Hotel Adlon for a special evening of Turkish and German businessman. Made up of violinist Tuncay Yılmaz, pianist Emre Elivar and Gustav Rivinius, a German cellist, the Arkas Trio was joined by world-famous organist Prof. Johnannes Geffert in the Santa Maria Music Days in 2015 and 2016. 

This year’s guest, Wolfgang Abendroth, said it had been a vast challenge to play the ancient organ at the two-day festival in mid-May. “More modern organs are easier to play and the claviers are larger and easy to manage,” he said. “I have practiced with this one, to make sure that I am at ease.” Accompanied by soprano Birgül Su Ariç, he played Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria and a wide repertoir from Mozart to Handel.

“The repertoire is one that is Mediterranean,” Abendorth told Hürriyet Daily News before the concert. “We took some of the Bach pieces out.” 

The intervention came from Arkas, the patron of arts who knew well the public of İzmir. “Bach may be the greatest composer on the organ but no one will listen to Bach for two hours,” he said, as he added Vivaldi and Bellini to the program.