Icelanders, Laplanders and Turks, oh my!

The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra of Turkey made a powerful impression with selections from Mozart, Handel, and Respighi at this year's BBC Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall.
The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra of Turkey made a powerful impression with selections from Mozart, Handel, and Respighi at this year's BBC Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall. (BENNU GEREDE)
Posted: September 03, 2014

Symphony orchestras draw great cachet from their geographical homes: Any group with Vienna, Berlin, or Amsterdam in its name is going to command immediate attention from audiences, even if those cities' third-tier orchestras would be lucky to match Scranton's Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic.

So can an orchestra from Turkey, Iceland, or Lapland hope to be noticed at the world's busiest orchestra festival, the summertime BBC Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall? Actually, it can.

One of this year's Proms winners seems to be the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra. And even if the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Lapland didn't make as big an impression, they've had international exposure via the BBC broadcasts heard live and archived (

Making a splash starts with creating a niche, the model being the knockout 2007 BBC Proms performance by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, whose performance of Bernstein's "Mambo" from West Side Story - while wearing jackets derived from their country's flag - caused a global sensation. The YouTube video has tallied some 900,000 hits. Though the Latino community has long-standing ambivalence about West Side Story's portrait of ethnic stereotypes, this orchestra cleverly embraced and redefined Bernstein's cultural touchstone - but it also staked a claim to Beethoven in performances that stood up next to their best Viennese counterparts.

Similarly, the Istanbul orchestra, founded in 1999 and taking its name partly from the sponsoring Borusan industrial conglomerate, is being a similarly good sport about Turkey's kitschy representation in the symphonic repertoire. Titled "Oriental Promise," its Proms program under Viennese conductor Sascha Goetzel included Mozart's The Abduction From the Seraglio overture plus two musical portraits of the Queen of Sheba - by Handel (from Solomon) and Respighi ( Belkis, Queen of Sheba).

Nobody can accuse the group of lacking a spirit of adventure: The performance also featured the new Violin Concerto of Gabriel (not Sergei, his grandfather) Prokofiev - a long, oblique work featuring soloist Daniel Hope.

On the orchestra's recordings, it seems to bring a wonderfully feverish energy to whatever it plays, especially welcome in such potentially cerebral works as Hindemith's Mathis der Maler. And if that isn't enough to distinguish its recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade from the others, Borusan Istanbul has between-movements improvisations on the lute-like oud.

Ethnic acknowledgement is tougher with the Icelandic orchestra, which has been a recording presence for years but has been unable to tour for the last five due to homeland economic problems. The concert started with Haukur Tómasson's little-known tone poem Magma, which certainly conjures the kind of geophysical activity Iceland is known for, in a program titled "Classical Tectonics" that also included a good if not outstanding Beethoven Symphony No. 5.

The Laplanders from Finland (possibly the Arctic's only professional orchestra) programmed countryman Jean Sibelius but no doubt earned respect with challenging works by Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies. The valiant performances under John Storgårds obviously circumvented comparisons with classics played by more southerly counterparts.

The bigger story here is the global rise in orchestral standards - much excellent music-making is happening more consistently in secondary cities. Carnegie Hall's great "Spring for Music" has showcased excellent orchestras from Detroit to Rochester, N.Y., to Portland, Ore. - no surprise to anyone living in those cities but a revelation to New Yorkers.

Countries that have produced great classical soloists for years (China) and decades (South Korea) are evolving into orchestral communities that go well beyond being solid. No doubt the National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra from Beijing will be closely watched in its U.S. tour this fall (it performs in Verizon Hall Nov. 7 with pianist Yuja Wang).

My big discovery of 2014 so far is the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the first Asian orchestra to sign with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. It's making one fine disc after another, though they are not yet available in the United States.

Timing is crucial. Some orchestras "go for it" before they are ready, as suggested by the recordings of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco and England's Orchestra of the Swan. The Icelanders were no doubt keen to capitalize on rising-star conductor Ilan Volkov, but perhaps haven't achieved a consistency that allowed them to do their best in the tricky Royal Albert Hall acoustics, at least in comparison to their much-better hometown broadcasts.

Seoul seems to represent a serendipitous meeting of conductor and orchestra. In contrast to the Philadelphia Orchestra (which has great institutional solidity), emerging orchestras are more vulnerable to whatever their current leadership might be. Principal conductor Myung-Whun Chung, 61, has a multi-decade international career that's current in what might be called the "ninth symphony" stage, where wisdom and authority join in performances that aren't simply impressive, but that authoritatively alter one's views of what the music is saying.

Anyone who believes that Beethoven's Ninth draws its power from its broad musical strokes hasn't heard Chung's recording, which has all the necessary fury but is like looking at a drop of water under a microscope: Many tiny musical organisms interact with all manner of poetic friction - constantly morphing and reminding you what a bottomless pit great music is. Perhaps the ultimate value of these orchestras is this: They present an outsider's view that the longtime insiders have taken for granted.

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