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Music to soothe the soul — even between Turks and Greeks

June 25, 2010

PH_MahmutCeylan_084(Writing and Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley)

Turkish-Greek relations have never been smooth, exactly. The countries have gone to war against each other, and territory disputes continued to haunt them until the end of the 20th Century. Yet, in recent years, diplomacy has thawed the once icy relations between the two. This week, it was music that did the trick.

Not long after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the majestic fourth-century Hagia Ereine, Istanbul’s first Christian church, was turned into a weapons storage facility, but this week it served as the venue for the Turkish debut of Iannis Xenakis’ “Oresteia,” the late Greek composer’s re-imagining of Aeschylus’ ancient tale of war, treachery, democracy and peace. The setting proved dramatic, and inspiring, as part of the International Istanbul Music Festival. The city is this year’s European Capital of Culture.PH_MahmutCeylan_184

Xenakis’ 1966 oratorio — sung in three acts and with electrifying choral work and 12 featured instruments in Istanbul on Monday — is based on the trilogy of Greek tragedies that celebrates the birth of democracy out of destruction in ancient Greece. The Istanbul production, with its new arrangement, included members of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and Greek and Turkish singers. It was conducted under the baton of Gürer Aykal, whose formal white tie and tails contradicted the modern score, which is heavy on instrumentations such as clapper boards to mimic applause and sheets of light metal shaken to create a rasping thunder.

The music felt chaotic and eerie, made more so by the solemn setting and the fact that, as recently as 1996, Greece and Turkey almost went to war over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean Sea. But it also seemed appropriate that the neighboring countries would get together for a performance at the music festival, now in its 38th PH_MahmutCeylan_062year. It is the biggest event of its kind in Turkey and draws fans of classical music and opera from around the world with a roster of international stars.

This year, Chinese pianist Lang Lang performed works by Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann, and Arvo Pärt, the 75 year-old Estonian composer, premiered his “Adam’s Lament” in Istanbul. An open-air museum onto itself, Istanbul has no problem drawing tourists, but set in stunning venues like Hagia Eirene, the festival is a special treat for visitors. And for residents who remember the bitter exchanges between the two countries, seeing Greeks and Turks perform together was exhilarating.

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