TSO & Fazıl Say

I feel like we’ve been waiting for ages for this concert. And what a concert it was.

Fazıl Say seems to be everywhere lately, literally and figuratively. He’s performing all over Europe, having recently played Beethoven’s Emperor concerto somewhere in Turkey, I think. His recent(ish) recording of the Mozart piano sonatas is getting good reviews, and he’s got albums of his own music, composing new works, all sorts of stuff.

So it’s nice to have him here in town with us to perform Mozart. A number of months ago, we heard the Taiwan premiere (which was also kind of the joint Asian premiere, performed the same night in Tokyo with the composer present) of Say’s Istanbul Symphony, a phenomenal work, with the conductor of the world premiere conducting for our performance with the TSO.

And now they get to work with him personally. And we get to see him in person. And I’ll be damned if it wasn’t one of the most unique, fascinating, near-transcendental concert experiences I’ve ever had. Buckle up folks, this could be long.

On the program this evening were Mozart’s Maurerische Trauermusik, K. 477 (Masonic Funeral March [well, how ’bout that?]) followed by Say’s performance of the 12th piano concerto, K. 414, in A.

After the break came Bartók’s Four Pieces, op. 12, which in speaking with Maestro Varga quite a few months ago we determined is apparently the Taiwan premiere, and he announced this during his standard pre-concert greeting/lecture. To close out the evening, we got Ravel’s Bolero. 

That’s an interesting program, I think. I wasn’t 100% sure what the underlying connection was across the first and second halves, but Varga began his little speech by asking the audience if we know who Woody Allen is, and introducing a quote from him, which Varga paraphrased. The original reads thusly:

In my next life I want to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people’s home feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day. You work for 40 years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous, then you are ready for high school. You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born. And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then Voila! You finish off as an orgasm!

So he says to us (minus the orgasm part, which I’m including because it actually kind of applies) that each half of the concert is like that, beginning with (or at least containing) a funereal piece and ending with ecstasy.

Mozart’s K. 477, basset horns and all, is a rather subdued affair, nothing the funereal marches you’d get from Mahler, certainly, not even Beethoven, but Varga conducted it (and perhaps the entire program) without a score. The march was kind of an amuse bouche, a palate cleanser for life so we could focus on the sheer beauty that was the 12th piano concerto.

Fazıl Say saunters out and gives a slight bow before squeezing in at the bench the way you might shimmy into a booth at a cramped restaurant. No adjusting of the bench in any direction; the piano sat snugly on his lap like the safety bar of a roller coaster car. Quite close with the piano, but things were about to get even closer.

As always, Mozart’s A major concerto in A (the first one) begins with an orchestral introduction, and Say spent it mostly looking at the piano strings like they were the buried treasure for which he’d been hunting for decades, or else glaring wildly at the cellos like they each had fluorescent eggplants coming out of their foreheads.

I can’t give a play-by-play (or even movement-by-movement) rundown of the piece, but overall, it was one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine I’d be the first to express the… uniqueness of Say’s stage presence, but it is as if he’d spent centuries cryogenically frozen and had only just prior to the concert, woken up from his snappy slumber and was relishing in every possible sensory experience there was to have. He (literally) wafted the piano sounds to his nose or the audience, cued himself with the non-playing hand in certain passages, gave either delighted cartoon-like smirks to himself, or glares (or side eye) to audience members. He would look at something in the middle distance with astonishment, or check over his shoulder to see if the orchestra was still there. A few times, I thought he was going to stand up from or either fall off of the piano bench, with his swaying and leaning, but….

… despite all the seeming theatrics that, granted, if only seen and not heard, would seem like the most haphazard, reckless, careless thing to ever hit a concert stage, I cannot convey to you how absolutely sublime was his performance. I have never heard Mozart like this before. It was extemporaneous and free, even a little bit wild, humorous at times, but also of the utmost restraint and polish, exquisitely clean, with pianissississimos like I’ve never heard, a clarity and touch that was very literally breathtaking.

I was so mesmerized by the dichotomy between his outward expression (I mean, like if Mozart and Captain Jack Sparrow had a baby who was a piano prodigy, that wouldn’t be too terribly far from what we saw this evening. What we heard, however, was music of supreme passion and color, an almost spiritual experience.

For anyone who’s not taken piano lessons, or even some of you who have, it may seem alien to you that different people can sit down at the piano and press the same keys and make different sounds. It’s a mechanical contraption, is it not? Levers, hammers, gravity. But somehow, you see, the piano is a living, breathing thing, and responds to someone who knows how to speak to it, and Say almost literally did. He would point at or gesture to it as if it were his companion through the piece, and Mozart (or basically anyone else) has never sounded so pristine and expressive and vibrant and lively.

But it turns out that was only the beginning.

He gave three encores. The first was a wild rhapsody/variation piece on Mozart’s own Turkish march, with splashes and crashes of blues and jazz, a hysterical but also wildly virtuosic encore piece. Contrasted with that was his own Black Earth, a piece of about five minutes’ playing time, that is dark and mysterious and grave, but suddenly richly romantic and expressive, to the point that, inexplicably, I was nearly in tears. It’s an astounding work, and that kind of focus and intensity from a composer performing their own work (something I may have never seen before) was spellbinding.

Thirdly, to end the first half on a lighter note, we got something inspired by Gershwin’s Summertime, a jazzy, sexy, sensual piece of outstandingly pianistic merit. So amazing to hear someone play Mozart and Gershwin (plus Say) to such a convincing and inspiring degree.

We all had 15-20 minutes during the intermission to process what had happened and work out a bit of our excitement or perplexity at what we’d just witnessed. It was really something to behold. But after the break, we were ready for our second death and birth/orgasm of the evening.

It began with Bartók’s Four Pieces, op. 12, a work which I am sure I’ve listened to once or twice. In any case, Varga again takes the podium, again scoreless, and leads the TSO in a reading of the Bartók that seems to leave both him and the audience breathless. The piece is not a symphony, but it’s in four movements (well, pieces) with a central scherzo and slow movement, finishing with another funereal march.

If you subscribe to the old trope that “Russians play Russian music the best,” or “French conductors get Debussy like no one else,” or “You have to be Brazilian to play Villa-Lobos, then you’d sure as hell be quick to say that Varga has Bartók’s music in his blood. This piece was a Taiwan premiere, a piece I’ve never seen/heard on any other program anywhere on earth among any of the orchestras/ensembles I’ve followed over the years on social media, but he gave it to us like it was a canonic symphony. Powerful stuff, that early Bartók, and the TSO gave it their all. This was the ‘dying’ of the first half of the program, and it certainly had its violent moments, despite the cool, wispy fragrance of the third piece/movement.

But then comes the actual musical orgasm. I’ve talked about this piece before, both in an article and a recent-ish concert review, so I won’t talk very long here about how the work is essentially a 15-ish-minute-long crescendo, a long, slow burn that swells to a massive orchestral orgasm, an orgy of sound that’s literally the same thing for about 90% of that time, spreading through the orchestra until the big final ending.

On the surface, it’s so simple, really, just the same few things over and over and over and over again, but Ravel was a freaking genius, so the potential for expressiveness, the room to really dig in and make the work something outstanding, is near limitless, and the TSO went balls to the wall again. Varga saved his energies for the latter third of the work, hands clasped at his waist until the brass section started to join in and the strings had started bowing. It left him slightly slumped but surely satisfied, a perfectly proud grin on his face when he turned around to bow for the audience. Phew!

Aside from the truly awesome music-making we heard this evening, the last time I saw/heard so many Turks in the same place was for the premiere of Say’s Istanbul Symphony. I even heard local Taiwanese people speaking in Turkish, or Turks speaking in English (maybe even Chinese). It was an international event, and a packed house for sure. The TSO could hardly have asked for a better season closer than this.

You guys… we’re 1740 words into this article and I just… can’t describe to you what it was like. In fact, I had to call a friend like 8,000 miles away, who was on a way to a rehearsal, and just kind of…. vent my enthusiasm about it, so thanks for that, LCG.

Wow, you guys. I don’t hang around for autographs or want to get pictures with people, but I wasn’t leaving that hall without his autograph. Unfortunately there were no photo ops, but I stole a few paparazzi-style photos of the man himself, but none worth sharing. Çok teşekkür ederim. Bir dahaki sefer görüşürüz!

I also bought an album just so he’d have something to sign. Bravo!
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One thought on “TSO & Fazıl Say

  1. It was a glorious evening, a fine way to end the season, serious music making, but played with the gusto and enthusiasm one expects from the last day of term. Wholly agree with your comments on Fazil Say’s presence and performance – Black Earth is a stunning piece of music.

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