The world premiere of "Tableaux Vivants d'une Résistance" (Living Images of a Resistance) on September 23 in Bonn's Beethoven Hall exceeded expectations and turned out to be a triumph for the composer.
A diffuse sound from the strings emerges out of nowhere und gradually gathers energy. Grippingly tender and quiet moments morph into anxious outbursts. Timbres, movements, structures, ascending und sighing motifs unfold, followed by the sound of a gunshot and a police siren. Cellos and violins give a momentary hint of consonance, a hesitant attempt at a deeply melancholy fragment of a melody. After about 20 minutes, the sound disappears as it began, exhaling its last breath.
In the sold-out Beethoven Hall, Tolga Yayalar witnessed the premiere of his piece and took a wave of warm applause afterward. The Istanbul-born composer was awarded the commission from Deutsche Welle, which co-hosted the Orchestra Campus, now in its 15th year, in cooperation with the Beethovenfest.
Analysis of noise
Pre-concert statements hadn't pointed to the stuff bravos are normally made of. The work, it was announced, had been conceived with impressions of the Gezi Park protests in June 2013 still fresh in the composer's mind. He'd turned them into a music that was all about noise, unrest and chaos.
"We are living in the post-John Cage world," Yayalar said in a reference to the American composer who described any sound - even street clamor - as music.
In effect, the "Tableaux Vivants d'une Résistance" are not clamorous, but emotionally gripping. This composer doesn't assault the ears. Having earned his doctorate at Harvard University in 2010, Tolga Yayalar is a music professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey's first private university. With a clear mastery of the craft of orchestral writing, his iridescent depiction takes place in the here and now, melding Occidental 12-tone technique and jazz with the microtonality he became intimate with in his studies of Arabian music.
Protest as a point of departure
In the finale of a three-year project named "Beethoven ile bulusma" (Encounter with Beethoven), the young musicians of the Bikent Youth Symphony Orchestra from Ankara gave a highly authentic rendition of the work: authentic because the impetus - the protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park - was largely a youth movement. Later it became something much bigger.
Protesting the government of then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it grew into the largest citizens' unrest in the country's history. Over 3.5 million people participated in about 5,000 protests. Five lost their lives, thousands were injured. More an act of rejection than of political vision, the protests died down after several months.
"I had to react," said Tolga Yayalar, "it all seemed so senseless." Initially planning six "Tableaux," he found his sounds "too literal" at first and while composing, simplified them in a process of abstraction.
"He sticks to music," attested festival director Nike Wagner, adding "the right composer was found." The Orchestra Campus, Wagner said, is a pillar of the Beethovenfest. "My heart is in continuing it."
A brotherhood of man
Yayalar's new music had no trifle of a counterpart at the event: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. From the first tone, the youth orchestra generated a very robust sound. Isin Metin drove the instrumentalists forward, also in the second movement, a whirling vortex of a dance. In the finale he held the massive forces together, the orchestra joined by the Beethoven Project Chorus of Bonn's Church of the Cross. Two Turkish and two German soloists sang the solo parts, the standout being Sellcuk Cara, a German-born bass-baritone of Turkish ancestry. Beethoven's message, "All men shall be brothers," came through loud and clear.
In the Campus project, young musicians from overseas get a taste of life in the city where Beethoven was born for one week, living with host families and giving their take on the composer in performances in Bonn and Berlin. Founded 20 years ago, the 110-member orchestra from Ankara represents youth orchestras from across Turkey, symbolizing the cosmopolitan, Western-oriented side of a society that is complex and highly polarized.
The young musicians earned standing ovations in the Beethoven Hall. Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, patron of this year's Orchestra Campus, called it "an important contribution to the extension of cultural contacts with Turkey."