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Fazil Say

Interview: Fazil Say


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 19 May 2003—Sucking in his lower lip, a dark frown of concentration on his face, Fazil Say carefully raised and lifted off the top of the Steinway as muffled giggles in the audience gave way to a sudden air of expectancy. After shuffling around on his seat awhile, arms swinging nonchalantly from his powerful shoulders, he finally reached over and into the piano, plucking the chords with his left hand while playing on the keyboard with his other. The sounds of this forceful, impromptu encore following a programme of Schubert and Richard Strauss, were extraordinary, and the ensuing melody, "Black Earth", one of his own compositions, was received with rapturous applause by the normally sedate Parisian audience.

"Composing helps me in my interpretation of the great classical works", Say told me after an earlier rehearsal at the Théatre des Champs Elysées. "It's complementary because it gives me a better overall view of the pieces I interpret. I put myself into a composer- playing- another- composer situation, and it gives me the freedom and confidence to go ahead with my very subjective reading of other scores, and to break accepted conventions. "

This unique, highly original musician, whose own pieces already include three concertos for piano and orchestra, two oratorios, and countless solo piano works as well as chamber music, has created music for as long as he can remember.

"I compose all the time", he shrugged, "whether at the airport, in the car, at night or in the morning. I follow my compositions and they follow me. It's like an hallucination sometimes. I suddenly hear something going on in my head, you know, music playing, and then from that twenty seconds of melody, an entire piano concerto can develop. When I was a child of three or four , "he added. "I used to make my own music on a toy flute and small xylophone before I even thought of playing the piano."

Fazil Say was born in Ankara on January 14th, 1970. His father was a writer and consequently the young boy, who also enjoyed reading and writing himself, was brought up in a creative environment. At the age of eleven, he began studying piano and composition at the Ankara State Conservatory under the watchful eye of Kamuran Gundemir, and after winning a scholarship six years later, left for the Robert Schumann Institute in Dusseldorf.

"Apart from the fact I was obliged to take a four month language course in German, being in Dusseldorf was not so very different from my life in Turkey", Say assured me. "I simply changed one conservatory for another, and they are all very much the same. Ankara is a modern city, a centre for the arts open to Western influence, so there was little change of atmosphere."

After studying for five years with David Levine, Say moved to Berlin to teach at the Academy there, but left for New York three years later after winning the Young Concert Artists International Audition in 1995. Each year, his newest recording seems to make a clean sweep of all the critics awards, but that is a subject he is reluctant to develop.

"What matters most to me is how I play", he said. " Whether in Carnegie Hall or a little Turkish village it's the quality of the music which counts; my wish is to bring the score to life, and whereas my Ottoman heritage certainly influences my own compositions, I sincerely hope I don't play Schumann's trout with overtones of traditional Turkish music! But since I left Turkey many years ago, I don't really know whether I'm a Western musician trying to go from West to East, or a Turkish interpreter trying to make a bridge to Western music. What is important however, is to understand the mind of the composer I'm playing."

"Bach, for instance, is sacred to me. I love all his works and find there's always something to learn from them. He's got so much to teach us. I'm very attached to Mozart whose music has been part of my repertory for ten years now, but for a long time I was afraid to attempt Beethoven . Now, however, I've finally grasped the way I want to play Beethoven's music, and we've become friends".

"With Stravinsky, I have a very special relationship, for while much of his music doesn't really interest me as an interpreter, I heard his Rite of Spring when I was 19 and had not been able to play the piano for a year because I was so depressed. Listening to it brought me back to life. I went straight out and bought myself a four-hand version of the score which I played immediately, although I'd scarcely moved my fingers for so long ."

Fazil Say
Photo: Patricia Boccadoro

Not only did his extraordinarily moving interpretation recorded ten years later win many awards, including the Prix Classique Echo and the German Critics' annual prize, it also opened the doors of New York City Ballet to him. At the end of July this year, Say will be making a special appearance on stage at the La Guardia Festival, seated at his computer piano.

"I want to create for dance", he told me, " and my long-term plan is to write the libretto and music of a complete ballet, and then give it to a choreographer. I'm also in contact with the Ballet of Munich, where Jiri Kylian is guest artist. But there's no rush. The Festival of La Guardia in New York is just a beginning."

Would he then return to America to live? No. After six years in the U.S., it was time to go home he says, home at the moment being the romantic city of Istanbul. He's happy living there, although from a musical and intellectual point of view, Berlin and Munich would rank high on his list of favourite cities. He also pointed out that he felt very much at home in Prague, Vienna, and Amsterdam, while Montpellier, where he was invited to play in 1995 after winning the Beracasa Foundation Prize, topped the list in France.

"I've given over thirty performances at the Festival International de Radio France - Montpellier*," he commented. " I like the audience, and they know and like me. I feel very free there."

With his intensely personal style, and larger than life personality, freedom to improvise and the importance of spontaneity frequently crop up in conversation, and it was no surprise to learn that Say often felt blocked by the perfectionism which comes from recording in a studio, as he enjoyed audience reaction and the excitement of a live recording.

"Most of the new release of my own music, a combination of solo piano pieces, concertos and jazz was recorded live", he commented, "and I'm very happy with it. I play how I want, just once and that's it. That's how I am; mistakes and all!"

After this recording, available in June, a second disc of ethnic jazz in collaboration with Kudsi Erguner, featuring the Turkish pianist's own jazz quartet will follow.

Before leaving the theatre, Say inevitably commented on the world situation, believing it would be a step forward to world peace if Turkey, an Islamic country, did officially become part of the European community. He could only express regret it was not already happening, and hopefully, his words will prove as convincing as the energy and optimism which spills out of his music.

*Festival International de Radio France-Montpellier

9 July:
Fazil Say: Jazz Paganini pour Tableaux piano et orchestre (creation)
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini, op 43
Stravinsky: L'Oiseau de Feu

17 July: Beethoven recital

Reservations: (33) 04 67 02 02 01

Patricia Boccadoro writes on the arts in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and is a senior editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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