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Review: Turkish Delights Are Served Up at Zankel Hall with La Serenissima

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 21, 2017

[Full disclosure: Your Faithful Scribe cannot be rational about this concert. Twenty-four hours after it ended, aforesaid scribe still reels with giddy-goat excitement, not having had such an unexpectedly good time since he got dragged off to see Janis Joplin at Tanglewood, back in the summer of ’69. Scribe freely confesses that he went to this one with a somewhat-less-than-high heart, because it looked like one of those tokens that sometimes get tacked onto epics like Carnegie Hall’s La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic, so as to give them a little street cred and goose up the grant-applications. Scribe further stipulates that he knew nothing about Turkish music before he sat down in Row K, Seat 3, and opened his program. Scribe cops to being besotted with Venice, and curious to see how the whole Turkish thing might tie in, especially after Jordi Savall’s mind-blowing introductory smorgasbord the other week. Scribe’s direct testimony follows.]

As it turned out [scribe witnesses and avers], the connection with Venice was pretty sketchy, but this was a fabulous ninety minutes of music, and Ahmet Erdoğdular and his colleagues are people you need to know about.

The program consisted of nearly a dozen masterpieces of classical Turkish music composed between the thirteenth century and 1992, separated by taksimler, or divisions—solo improvisations that prepare listeners by preluding on the next piece, while at the same time showing off the players’ virtuosity and musicianship. I am not competent to tell you much about the underlying musical system, save that it is based on makamlar—modes derived from splitting each whole-tone in the octave into nine microtones and building subtly differentiated scales from them. There are about 400 such modes in the repertoire, of which 100 are still in common use. The amazing thing is how quickly even a parachuting neophyte begins to recognize the difference in affect between one makam and another, and to sense how vast the system’s range of expression must be. (If you want to understand why Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle spent so much time fretting over the ancient Greek modes, this is a good place to start.)

The same is true of the instruments: there were only four, in addition to a few simple percussion instruments played by Erdoğdular as he sang, but the richness and variety of tone that poured forth from them was astounding. Erdoğdular’s father Ömer played the ney, an end-blown flute, carved from a single reed, of a kind that has been in use in the Middle East for nearly 5000 years. Göksel Baktagir was magnificent on the kanun, a plucked zither with an enormous range of articulations and colors. Yurdal Tokcan is said to be one of the finest oud-players in the world, a statement that no one in Friday’s audience would have disagreed with. Derya Türkan played the kemençe, a tiny, teardrop-shaped thing not much bigger than your two hands put together, but mighty beyond belief: bowed with something that looks like a weaponized crochet-hook, it sounds like an oboe playing in unison with a soft-edged clarinet, amped up, as needed, by a sensationally-edgy soprano sax; in terms of volume, it could easily have played everyone else off the stage. Those “simple percussion instruments” I mentioned are not be sneezed at, either: here again, the range of tone-color and articulation was amazing.

Erdoğdular is a great singer. His voice is clean, straight-on, and narrow-toned, as befits a repertoire requiring clear differentiation of 108 microtones, but at the same time beautifully managed and capable of apparently infinite coloration. He doesn’t do much—he’s very still onstage, and his face rarely gets engaged—but you don’t need words (no texts were provided) to have a powerful intuition of what he’s singing about, or what it means to him.

I can’t tell you much about the repertoire, either, except that every single piece was riveting in its own way. My favorites were the opening invocation of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be unto him), in a solemn, tender setting by Buhurizade Mustafa Itri (1640-1712) that began with a melting solo on the ney; and a snappy “Song for the Dancing Boys” by Hammamizade İsmail Dede Efendi (1778-1846), whom the program-notes call “the greatest composer of Ottoman Turkish classical music,” and you can readily see why.

The final piece on the program—a suite, also for the dancing boys, also by Efendi—was a knockout that involved a spectacular taksim from nearly every member of the ensemble, and here’s where the association with Janis Joplin comes in. Türkan led off on the kemençe, with a blazing solo that Jimi Hendrix might have envied. Tokcan was next up, on the oud, and the notion that this music has no harmony went right out the window: there were so many notes, so riotously put out there, that a glorious harmony-like haze set in, and who knew, or cared, whether they lined up vertically or not. Baktagir, a small, unassuming man whom you couldn’t pick out of a crowd, went at the kanun as if he were channelling Clapton. Erdoğdular finished it off with a rapid-fire vocal riff that Joplin would have stood up and screamed for.

Toes were tapping all over the house. Two rows in front of me, an otherwise dignified elderly gentleman was bopping with his head, his right hand, his elbows, and every now and again his whole torso. It was like the Grand Ole Opry, back when country music was country music, and there was black-and-white TV. It was terrific. On the way out, I bought all three of the CDs they were selling in the lobby, and if they’d had an ill-fitting baseball-cap that said “Make America Turkish Again,” I probably would have bought that, too.

Do yourself a favor: click here, and knock yourself out. You don’t have to thank me; I’m happy enough as it is.

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The Ahmet Erdoğdular Classical Turkish Music Ensemble in concert at Zankel Hall on February 17, 2017. Ahmet Erdoğdular, vocals and percussion; Ömer Erdoğdular, ney; Yurdal Tokcan, oud; Göksel Baktagir, kanun; Derya Türkan, kemençe.

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Cover: Ahmet Erdoğdular in concert at Zankel Hall; photo: Jack Vartoogian.


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