Letters from Turkey (2): Cultural and Musical Immersion on Summer Breaks

We all have different tastes and interests and, therefore, different understandings of how a summer break should be. For me, a summer break becomes more meaningful only if I can “immerse” myself in a range of musical and cultural events – as an audience, of course. This summer, I had the opportunity of spending a few weeks in the UK where I appreciated the chance of attending such events.

At the beginning of my stay in the UK, I attended the three-day Film and Media Conference at the in the Institute of Education in London where I also presented a paper on cinematic representations of gender. There were many concurrent and plenary sessions to attend and enjoy and so much to “digest” in each. During the closing speech of the conference, which was on the freedom of the media. There were frequent references to the jailed journalists in Turkey and the murder of Hrant Dink.

Fate knocking at the Barbican’s doors
The first concert I attended was at the Barbican on the same day I arrived in the UK, which was June 21st. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda offered a programme of Wagner, Berg and Beethoven. Right after taking my seat (L68), I noticed that a a familiar who was about to take his seat just in front of mine: He was a famous Turkish conductor. We had a short chat and I could not help thinking that London must be a small place! The high quality music brought the concert hall alive and electrified the audience. Classical music critics probably did their work and wrote their reviews of the concert. Whatever they might have written, I felt that Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 (1807-08) was played with conviction; one could feel that fate was knocking at the door. As written in the programme notes by Lindsay Kemp, the famous four-note motif is often said to represent ‘fate knocking at the door’, an apocryphal remark by Beethoven to his friend author Anton Schindler about the first movement. In 1800 Beethoven began to complain of deafness. However, he managed to create a series of remarkable new works. If deafness was fate, I said to myself, his masterpieces in this period were, then, probably his unique way of challenging fate.

Resurrection at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank
The second concert I attended took place at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank on June 28. Esa-Pekka Salonen and Philharmonia Orchestra took the audience on a transcendental journey with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 2 known as Resurrection Symphony. It was a stunnning performance from a first class orchestra. The Guardian’s music critic George Hall reviewed the performance and highlighted “Salonen’s ability to control the symphony’s vast trajectory without relinquishing a keen eye for local detail”. Hall wrote: “… Salonen judged balance within the overall sound picture to a nicety; nothing was overstated, even at the biggest climaxes.” BBC Radio 3 broadcast this concert live, which was a great opportunity for those unable to make it to the concert.

Thinking about home away from home
Being part of the vibrant atmosphere at the Barbican (home to the London Symphony Orchestra) and the Royal Festival Hall (residence of the Philharmonia Orchestra since 1996), I could not help thinking about the cultural scene back at home in Turkey. As a person living in Istanbul where acclaimed musicians and artists visit and regularly perform, I certainly am very fortunate. However, what I appreciated in London most was the awareness that I was miles and miles away from all the conflicts and stress caused by some new cultural policies back home.

First at the Barbican and then at the Royal Festival Hall, I also could not help thinking that we need more places like these in Turkey because such large multi-arts venues are like cultural islands “full of a diverse range of art, music, theatre, dance, film and creative learning events”. They bring all kinds of people together; people come and talk, wine and dine and immerse themselves in cultural events.

How are little boys made?
Attending musicals in London is always a joy for me. And as someone who has watched Billy Elliot and used it in class many times, I really enjoyed watching the staged version of the work. Billy Elliot’s story is always special; for me it is a story of breaking free, a story of passion that can inspire and lead to change. Great dance, Elton John’s music and an engaging story were what we the audience expected to find, and they were all there for us at the Victoria Palace.
While watching the musical, I thought that this theatrical experience would probably help me explore the film with my students in Istanbul in a more different way and remembered the following poem (source and author unknown), which I discuss with my students when we analyze the film version of Billy Elliot:

How are little boys made? / Take one new baby, / Poke it and toss it, force it and push it, /Leave it alone a lot, and never speak softly to it. / How are little girls made? /Take one new baby, /Cuddle it and coo at it, soothe it and calm it, / And never let it stray. / What are little boys made of? /Scrapes and pains, fears not shown, / Lessons learned the hard way, / Loneliness ingrown. / What are little girls made of? / Questions and dreams, secrets never told, / Trusts nurtured and betrayed, / Life waiting to unfold.

From My Humphrey Bogart Seat at The Electric Cinema, Birmingham
I visited my wonderful friends in Birmingham in the second part of my visit to the UK. I must say that I feel privileged whenever I stay with them. I felt the same again this time. Knowing my visit in advance, they had already made the booking for a documentary film screening at the Electric Cinema – established in 1909 and the oldest working cinema in the UK. The cinema has been through many name changes (The Select, The Tatler, The Classic, The Tivoli and The Jacey) and was mostly rebuilt in the 1930s. Tom Lawes bought the cinema in 2004, restored it and made a wonderful documentary, “The Last Projectionist”, in 2011.

The fact that the documentary we watched here at the Electric was about the history of “The Electric” and UK independent cinema, and the fact that it was directed by its owner Tom Lawes made this film watching experience very special: Many scenes were shot inside the Electric indeed. Tom Lawes’s story of the Electric Cinema is important because it is also the story of the changing face of cinema in the UK. While travelling in time, the documentary, as The Guardian’s Mark Kermode writes, “raises important questions about the role of the multiplex, the inevitable rise of digital, and the life-affirming persistence of independent cinemas which offer something more than the supermarket experience.” While sitting in my Humphrey Bogart seat, watching the film and having nibbles and a drink, I was also thinking about the questions the film raises about the cinema today and tomorrow. And, of course, it was impossible not to think about Guisseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso”.

After the film screening, we had a chance to talk to Sam Bishop, the Operations Manager of the Electric. He very briefly took us to the projection room and showed us the old (a 35 mm film projector) and new projection (a digital film projector) equipment. It was like looking at a photo capturing the spirit of the past and the present. Sam also kindly accepted to have our picture taken with him just outside the Electric.

Proud Birmingham
This year Birmingham Symphony Hall is celebrating its 21st anniversary. This stunning hall is considered one of UK’s finest halls. Very special. Over 370,000 people are said to attend around 320 events every year. The Hall is home to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which was founded in 1920 and whose first Town Hall performance was conducted by Elgar. In 1980 Simon Rattle was appointed Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Under Rattle’s leadership, the Orchestra gained a reputation as “one of the finest in the world.” Some interesting facts from the Symphony Hall’s website: “An acoustic test demonstrated that if a pin was dropped on stage, the sound could be heard from anywhere in the Hall… The symphony organ has over 6,000 pipes and weighs more than 30 tonnes.”

The CBSO concert we attended on July 6 was mainly a tribute to John Williams in his 80th birthday year and included music inspired by space, science-fiction and fantasy: music from Star Wars,
 2001: A Space Odyssey,
 Star Trek, The Planets, 
E.T., 
Independence Day,
 Red Dwarf, Stargate 
Thunderbirds. The conductor Carl Davis always gave information regarding each piece played. The concert was special for anybody interested in film music. And a worldwide famous orchestra’s refined performance was, of course, a bonus.

And the board in the foyer! Let me explain this: The board had a sign that read: “”What does the Symphony Hall mean to you?” Music lovers were encouraged to post-it their views of the Hall on the board. I spent quite a while reading the comments people wrote on post-its. It was a simple idea but an extremely nice one. I thought this would kind of create a sense of belonging to and a sense of shared love for the Hall.

The Symphony Hall has many facilities in it: very nice coffee shops and restaurants (espresso at the Strada was special), a music shop (I got the CBSO’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4), an art gallery (the exhibition of works by Bob Dylan was a big surprise)…

Final words
I have tried to reflect upon some of the cultural and musical events I attended this summer. There is probably no need to say that all these events have made me feel “richer” as a person.

Salonen & Noseda Pictures: Noseda© Chris.Christodoulou  / Salonen© Clive Barda

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