"Mozart Is No Better Than Dede Efendi"
When Sufi dervishes whirl to the tune of classical musicians from Cologne under the dome of the Hagia Irene in Istanbul, the audience is treated to yet another example of how the Ensemble Sarband builds bridges between cultures.
One of the highlights of this year's International Istanbul Musical Festival was the joint performance of the Sarband multinational musical ensemble with Concerto Köln.
Often the multinational audience in the Hagia Irene had trouble figuring out when Western compositions stopped and Eastern ones began, causing the crowd to applaud at the wrong moments. However, that is all part of the concept behind Sarband: "We want to confront cultures with each other," says Sarband founder and director Vladimir Ivanoff.
Turkish influences on 18th century European music
"Dream of the Orient" is the name of the musical program compiled by Sarband and Concerto Köln to demonstrate Turkish influences on 18th century European music. Concerto Köln played the Western compositions with Turkish-inspired works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Christoph Willibald Gluck and Franz Xaver Süssmayr.
Sarband demonstrated Turkish musical influences with a group of four renowned Turkish musicians from the ensemble, accompanied by Ivanoff himself. At times the five Sarband musicians played together with the Western orchestra and enriched the European compositions with Turkish instruments.
These pieces were interspersed with performances of Turkish classical compositions that have inspired European composers. At other times, the ensemble contrasted the oriental clichés of classical composers with genuine oriental music – a humorous highlight in the program.
Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio"
Vladimir Ivanoff says that audiences have different reactions to these bridge-building performances, depending on their cultural backgrounds. In the West, audiences are more familiar with the European part of the program, for example, the so-called Turkish overture to Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" is like a "pop tune for Western classical music lovers", says Ivanoff.
By contrast, performances of Turkish classical music are seen here as extremely exotic. "Nothing could be more foreign for them," observes Ivanoff. "Classical Turkish music opens up whole new worlds for Berlin audiences, along with the realization that Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Music is not limited to Sezen Aksu and pop music. The music that we play is an advanced art form."
In Turkey and the Arab world, however, audiences are usually familiar with both elements, although not in this combination. The classical musical traditions of the Ottoman Empire are still alive and well, and music lovers are also familiar with Western classics.
Musical crossovers accepted by Eastern audiences
This explains why the trend toward musical crossovers is so readily accepted by Eastern audiences, while Europeans have traditionally shown relatively little interest in oriental music, largely ignoring a continuous musical tradition in Turkey and Arab countries that extends back to the 15th century.
In view of these historical differences, Ivanoff says that the musical program "Dream of the Orient" allows Turkish audiences to feel a renewed sense of musical self-assurance:
"Audiences are proud to see that five musicians playing Turkish music can hold their own with a 29-member Western orchestra – and that Mozart is no better than Dede Efendi."
Jewish, Christian and Muslim musical interpretations
"Dream of the Orient" is only one of the bridges that Sarband builds between cultures and the Turkish quintet is only one of the ensemble's many performing groups.
Currently a total of eleven musicians from six different countries are members of Sarband, including a Swedish and an Arab singer and two Italians. Together with the English "King's Singers", the ensemble has recently made a collection of Jewish, Christian and Muslim musical interpretations of the Genevan psalm melodies and other psalms.
"The psalms are the smallest common denominator of all three religions", says Ivanoff. A new program soon to go on tour entitled "Sacred Bridges" demonstrates the differences and commonalities among these religions in their approach to the psalms. Another program, "Son of Sheik", uses Turkish instruments to make fun of the oriental musical clichés in the silent film of the same title starring Rudolpho Valentino.
Musicians from half a dozen countries
Sarband originated as a student ensemble for medieval music that musicologist Ivanoff founded at the University of Munich along with Iranian, Turkish and Arab fellow students. Ivanoff recalls: "They played medieval music much better than Western musicians because they had a feeling for monophonic music and could improvise."
This group was transformed into a European-oriental ensemble when the organizers of the festival for the 1989 Orient-Occident Exposition in Berlin realized that they had no fitting music for the event. Ivanoff was hired to produce three programs, which immediately became hits and were sold on CD. Since then he has made Sarband a full-time professional pursuit.
"It took a number of years before we noticed that we had become professionals," says Ivanoff, who has since put aside writing his post-doctoral thesis. The 48-year-old ensemble leader jokes: "I could also call myself the Ivanoff Travel Agency."
When the native Bulgarian who now calls Munich his home is not on tour, he spends eight hours a day submitting visa applications and booking flights to bring together the musicians from half a dozen different countries for rehearsals and tours.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: Paul Cohen
Portrait Reem Kelani
Reem Kelani, Palestinian multi-talent, sings traditional Palestinian Songs, as well as Jazz and Blues. Although she's got a doctorate in Coastal Marine Biology, she always wanted to be a singer. A portrait by Martina Sabra