Tuesday, August 28, 2018

GUEST BLOGGER: "An American in Ankara," Part 1

GUEST BLOGGER, The American Prize Laureate Composer and Honored Artist, Lee Actor, writes about conducting concerts of his music in Turkey.

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PART ONE: "An American in Ankara"
by Lee Actor
In November of 2011, I received an unexpected and surprising email from Turkey.  It was from a musician named Fethi Günçer, who explained that he played clarinet/saxophone for the Presidential Symphony Orchestra in Ankara, had heard my alto saxophone concerto online, really liked it, and suggested that I come to Turkey to conduct it with his orchestra.  My initial reaction, frankly, was “Is this for real?”.  A quick online search revealed that this was indeed a legitimate, full-time professional orchestra – the Turkish name is Cumhurbaşkanlığı Senfoni Orkestrası, or C.S.O. – and in fact one of the oldest orchestras in the world, having been founded in 1826.  Looking through their season schedule, I discovered that the orchestra presented a new program every week from September through May, with repertoire very similar to that of any major American orchestra – with the exception of a few Turkish composers who I wasn’t familiar with.

Naturally, I was intrigued, and had many questions: about the rehearsal schedule, possible language issues communicating with the orchestra (English is my only fluent language), the financial arrangements – and not least about Turkey itself, which I had never visited.  But my main concern was how programming decisions get made.  Certainly for U.S. orchestras, individual musicians have little or no say over programming, which is normally the province of orchestra management and music directors.  For historical reasons, all orchestras in Turkey are state institutions, with rotating management councils elected by the musicians, and Mr. Günçer was confident that presenting this kind of project to his friends on the management council had a high probability of being approved.  In his enthusiasm, he even suggested offering an all-Actor program, to be conducted by me, and taking it to orchestras in other Turkish cities besides Ankara.  This prompted me to ask the question, “Why would people in Turkey come to a concert of works by an American composer they’ve never heard of?”  Not to worry, he assured me; they played weekly to nearly full audiences, who no doubt would enjoy my music.  They would consider it an honor to host me, and had every reason to expect a successful concert.  No pressure!

Over the following months, as we continued to email back and forth, Fethi introduced the symphony management to my music, which apparently they liked very much.  In mid-2013, I finally received a formal invitation from the orchestra to conduct a program of my works for the 2013-14 season.  However, it was late in the planning process, and we couldn’t find a mutually agreeable time to schedule the concert.  I was invited again for the 2014-15 season, but the appointment of a new General Music Director and the usual bureaucratic red tape caused that season’s schedule to fill up before we could find a suitable date.  I got another invitation in the summer of 2015 for the 2015-16 season, and, try as we might, couldn’t find a date that worked for both of us.  Unbelievably, the same thing happened a year later for the 2016-17 season.  The stars finally aligned for the 2017-18 season and we locked in a week in mid-March 2018.  In short order, Fethi arranged for a concert the following week in Izmir with the Izmir State Symphony Orchestra (İzmir Devlet Senfoni Orkestrası in Turkish).  A few months later I had signed contracts with both orchestras and could start planning this trip in earnest.

Then in early October 2017, Turkey and the U.S. got into a diplomatic dispute and both stopped issuing travel visas to the other country.  As the impasse continued week after week, the entire project became increasingly doubtful.  It seemed the only other option I had was to make an appointment for an interview at the nearest Turkish embassy (400 miles away) and hope they would decide to issue a visa.  But I was working on a deadline for my latest composition, and didn’t have the time to spare – especially since there was no guarantee that it would result in a travel visa.  I asked my friends at the C.S.O. if there was anything they could do, but their hands were tied.  The two countries finally kissed and made up the last week of December 2017, and I was able to quickly get our e-Visas online.

Another snag concerned getting the orchestral parts for the program to Turkey.  When the C.S.O. tried to place an order on my website, they told me they were unable to because “Turkey” was not in the list of countries offered.  This surprised me, as I use PayPal on the website.  But a little investigation revealed that in 2016 Turkey had passed new regulations that required IT systems for financial transactions be localized within the country, making it impossible for PayPal to continue doing business there (they distribute their IT across numerous global hubs).  This inspired us to forgo the shipping of physical parts entirely, opting instead for secure pdfs – much less expensive and less work, at least on my part.  I’ve since added a pdf option to my online store for all parts.

The orchestra booked our flights, and we made our final preparations.  Ok, I’ll say it – I HATE traveling.  I hate airports with their security lines and endless waiting, I hate being a captive sardine on an airplane, I hate disrupting my daily schedule, I hate not having my “stuff” around me.  It took the extraordinary opportunity offered me in Turkey to overcome my innate reluctance to spend 2 weeks in a foreign country.  We had a direct flight from San Francisco to Istanbul, which took 13 hours; from there it’s an hour or so flight to Ankara, the capital of Turkey and its 2nd largest city.  The orchestra sent a car to take us from the airport to the hotel, where we finally met in person my now good friend Fethi Günçer.  Fethi greeted us with flowers for my wife and a large supply of bottled water – “better than hotel bottled water”, he assured us.  Apparently, most people in Turkey drink bottled rather than tap water.

Our room was fairly small by American standards, but big enough for our needs, and at least we had Wi-Fi.  But as we hauled in our several large suitcases filled with 2 weeks’ worth of clothing, concert clothes and other essentials, we noticed there was no closet, no place to hang up anything, no drawers, and no shelves.  Hmm, this was going to be interesting.  We did end up changing rooms after one night, as the ventilation system wasn’t working properly, and ended up in a larger room with space to hang up and store our clothes.

We had two full days before rehearsals started on Tuesday, leaving plenty of time for sightseeing around Ankara.  Fethi was our gracious host, taking us to museums, bazaars, and the famous mausoleum of Atatürk, the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey, which replaced the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1923.  Call me quirky, but I always enjoy visiting supermarkets and department stores in other countries, which along with “people watching” gives me a better feel for the local population than artifacts from the Bronze Age, interesting though the latter may be.  We had several outstanding meals in Ankara; one of the most memorable was lunch at a restaurant very popular with locals, but practically unknown to tourists.  We had lamb “kebap” – seasoned meat roasted on a vertical rotisserie, sliced thinly and served on a kind of puffy bread – and the best baklava I’ve ever had, baked fresh daily at the restaurant.  And at the hotel breakfast buffet I developed a daily habit for “simit”, a popular street food which is basically a round bread covered in sesame seeds – kind of a Turkish bagel.  The food in Turkey was delightful, the only problem being to avoid overindulging.

On Tuesday morning we finally got down to business.  The orchestra sent a car to take us from the hotel to the concert hall, only a few minutes away.  The program was designed around my “Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra”, a Finalist for the 2013 American Prize in Orchestral Composition and always a big hit with audiences; it has been performed 16 times to date.  Fethi and I spent a couple of hours on Monday going over the whole concerto and aligning our concepts of the piece; I had just conducted a performance of the concerto in February with the Palo Alto Philharmonic, so it was still very fresh in my memory.  For the opener I had decided on “Dance Rhapsody”, one of my most popular pieces (14 performances) and a sure-fire audience pleaser; it won 2nd place in the 2011 American Prize in Orchestra Composition, and was the winner of the 2016 Austin Civic Orchestra Composition Competition.  I had conducted the premiere in 2010 and knew there were technical challenges for both orchestra and conductor.  The final piece on the program was my 34-minute “Symphony No. 3”, which had not been performed since its premiere in 2013; it has a definite “Shostakovich” vibe, and a couple of the movements are challenging even for professionals.  The program totaled 72 minutes of music, which I thought would be quite doable in 4 rehearsals, even though this would be all-new music for the orchestra – the Turkish premieres of all 3 pieces, in fact.



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