Wednesday, August 29, 2018

GUEST BLOGGER: "An American in Ankara," Part 2

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

For part one of this story, please click: 

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PART TWO of "An American in Ankara"—more GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
by Lee Actor
As the Assistant Conductor of the Palo Alto Philharmonic since 2001, I am very familiar with the rehearsal techniques and pacing needed to prepare a good amateur orchestra for performance.  However, this would be my first time conducting a professional orchestra, and I was admittedly a bit anxious.  As the sole composer on the program, I faced a double whammy: the musicians might dislike my music, my conducting, or both; and negative feelings in one area were sure to affect the other.

Fethi taught me a few words of Turkish to introduce myself to the orchestra, and as we started rehearsing “Dance Rhapsody” a comfortable relationship quickly developed between me and the musicians.  My fears about communication issues proved unfounded; most of the orchestra understood at least some English.  I learned that the concertmaster had studied for several years at the New England Conservatory, and those few times I needed to express a more complex idea, she helpfully translated for the orchestra.  But for the most part “musical Italian” and a little English worked just fine.  I quickly learned to avoid using large numbers, as in “Please begin at m. 237”; much better was “6 before letter K”.  Interestingly, the musicians in Izmir the following week specifically asked me to use absolute measure numbers when they realized I was intentionally avoiding using them.

There is a fine balance for a conductor – especially a guest conductor – between maintaining control and keeping the musicians engaged.  For example, I had been told that the mid-rehearsal break was 15 minutes long; but that first day when I returned to the stage at the appointed time, it was still largely empty.  The “real” break was closer to 25 minutes, which I didn’t make an issue of; an easy decision considering the 3-hour rehearsal length.  On purely musical issues, we worked hard but efficiently, and I made no compromises.  I was “tested” a couple of times – such as when a string principal suggested that a certain passage would be easier if not played as softly as notated – but the orchestra quickly realized that I knew what I wanted, and there was very little friction overall.  As the week passed, more and more musicians overcame their shyness or insecurity about their English to tell me how much they were enjoying the music and working with me.

The orchestra management had asked me if I was willing to give a presentation to local conservatory students, which I agreed to.  On Wednesday afternoon my talk covered the circuitous journey to my career as a full-time composer, with numerous audio examples of how my compositional style has changed over the past 40 years.  No translator was needed, and the audience seemed very appreciative.
Rehearsal in Ankara
The performance in Ankara was billed as the “Turkish-American Friendship Concert” (a bit ironic considering the recent diplomatic friction between the countries), and it wasn’t until we had been in Turkey for some time that I understood how key a player the U.S. Embassy had been as a financial promoter of the concert.  They held a very nice reception for us on Thursday evening at the ambassador’s residence, where I met the acting ambassador and much of his staff, all of whom attended the performance Friday evening.  Of course, promoting good relations between Turkey and the U.S. is a major component of their jobs, and they were very excited to learn that an American composer would be in Ankara for a week to conduct a program of his works.  I should mention that none of the orchestra management who attended the reception had ever been to the ambassador’s residence before, so it was a first for all of us.  One person I met there was a Turkish composer who wrote orchestral music but taught jazz at the conservatory; improbably, he received his doctorate in Tennessee!

The “general” rehearsal on Friday morning – what we would call a dress rehearsal – included a large contingent of elementary-age school kids in the audience.  At the break, they rushed up to the stage and seemed genuinely excited to speak to me, though honestly I’m not sure why.  I’m not a big fan of tiring out the orchestra the day of the concert, so I made sure we did what we needed during the rehearsal and let them go 30 minutes early.  You can’t overrate good will.

I arrived at the concert hall 2 hours before the performance, where the U.S. Embassy filmed a short promotional video; you can see here:

The house was nearly full for the concert, which was received warmly.  I was pretty sure that Dance Rhapsody and the saxophone concerto would go over well, as they always seem to; but I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic ovation given the 3rd Symphony, much of which has a fairly dark mood.  The orchestra recorded video for the entire concert, which I’ve linked to on my website:

Just outside ancient Ephesus
Following the performance in Ankara, the original plan was to fly the 325 miles to Izmir for another week of rehearsals and concert; but Fethi offered to drive us there in his van for a more up close and personal view of the country, which sounded like fun.  We spent most of the day Saturday on the road, during which it rained intermittently.  Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey and is located on the west coast of the country, on the Aegean Sea.  It is a popular tourist destination and has a relaxed, laid back feel not unlike Northern California.  Several of Fethi’s close relatives live in Izmir, including his brother Cemil, recently retired concertmaster of the Izmir State Symphony Orchestra (İzmir Devlet Senfoni Orkestrası in Turkish).  Cemil and his wife Karen – originally from Wales – were extremely gracious and treated us like family members, hosting us at their home nearly every evening for dinner and conversation.

The rehearsal schedule in Izmir was similar to that in Ankara: rehearsals in the mornings from Tuesday through Friday, with the concert Friday evening, leaving us two full days for sightseeing.  One must-see destination, about an hour away by car, is the famous ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus, some of which is as much as 8000 years old.  There is a large Greek amphitheater there which is still used as a performing venue.
Concert in Izmir
The concert hall in Izmir is fairly new, and quite attractive.  As in Ankara, the orchestra provided a driver each day.  The musicians again were very friendly and welcoming, and as the week went on a number of them approached me during breaks to let me know they enjoyed rehearsing my music.  It was interesting to compare the two orchestras: one a little stronger in the strings, the other with stronger horns, etc.; but overall they were quite similar in their level of playing.  The concert in Izmir was also well-received, and the entire experience was very humbling and gratifying for me.
Fethi and Me
It is a great honor for any composer to have an entire program dedicated solely to his works.  It’s not unusual to see an all-Beethoven, or all-Mozart, or all-[fill in the name of another immortal composer] concert program; but such a thing is much rarer for a living composer.  It’s not something I ever expected to happen for me – let alone in Turkey!  I’m told that this was the first concert in the 192-year history of the C.S.O. that consisted of the works of a single composer, conducted by the composer.  Obviously I’m very humbled and grateful for the opportunity, and look forward to my next visit to Turkey.  My biggest debt of gratitude goes to Fethi Günçer, who took it upon himself to champion my music in Turkey, and single-handedly fought with determination to overcome every obstacle – and there were many – to bring me to his country to perform.  No composer could ask for more.


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