Performer/Composer Fazil Say Plays—and Plays With—the Piano
Most classical pianists spend a lifetime focused on what their hands do on the keyboard. Fazil Say is no exception, though under the right circumstances his hands do wander a bit. “There is the possibility of putting the left hand [inside the piano] and pushing the strings, with the right hand on the keys [playing],” Say says. The resulting flattened, melodic thump, he adds, “is to make the sounds sound like ethnic Turkish music.”
Say came up with the extended technique himself; he says he has been playing piano since age 5 and “was experimenting as a child already.” Perhaps even more unusual is the fact that he also wrote Black Earth, the five-part Anatolia-evocative solo piece in which he uses the effect. It’s just one of more than 20 compositions the 35-year-old Ankara, Turkey, native has penned thus far over the course of a career in a field currently better known for interpreters than composer/performers. In short, Say, who comes to Baltimore this weekend as part of Shriver Hall’s A Piano Celebration mini-festival, celebrates the piano in more ways than most.
Say began his formal musical studies at age 11, at the Ankara State Conservatory, but his talent won him an opportunity to study in the heartland of classical music: first in Düsseldorf, Germany, beginning at age 17, and then later at the Berlin Conservatory. Say recalls his time in Germany as enormously important, and not just for his music. “Germany is the country of classical music composers like Beethoven and Brahms,” he says over the phone from his home in Istanbul, as his daughter plays in the background. “But learning German language and philosophy and literature along with the German composers, of course, changed my intellectualizing. It was, for me, a life school.
“A conservatory is a conservatory,” he continues. “You can go to a Singapore conservatory or you can go to a South African conservatory, and they’re not much different from the others. That’s not the point. It’s the culture on the street, the culture in the cities, you know?”
Say’s music has always drawn from inspirations and sources outside the conservatory’s walls and the classical canon. He is, for example, a fan of American jazz, one blind piano virtuoso in particular. “Art Tatum is a very, very great piano player in every sense,” Say says matter-of-factly. “He has a fantastic technique, and colorist and improviser. Everybody has to learn something from him, right?” Say not only plays jazz; he has retained his interest in equally improvisational traditional Turkish music, incorporating its sounds and modes into his own compositions, while also maintaining an ongoing musical partnership with Kudsi Ergüner, a virtuoso of the ney, or wooden flute, and the leading figure in traditional Turkish music today.
While Say’s influences are nontraditional, his powerful, sometimes impetuous playing has met with much traditional success. In the mid-’90s, near the end of his time at the Berlin Conservatory, Say launched an enviable concert career, going on to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Orchestre National de France, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He also has recorded fairly steadily, debuting with a Mozart recital on Atlantic in 1998, and soon following up with a disc of compositions by George Gershwin. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue remains a key part of his repertoire; he performed it with frequent collaborator Yuri Temirkanov and the BSO this past September. He remains an admirer of American composers, in part, because they, too, tend to draw from differing traditions.
“Every time I play Bernstein or Gershwin pieces, it’s always very inspiring,” he says. “It has this American style of crossover between classic jazz and musicals and songs. It’s very singing music, and very colorful. And all of these composers are, of course, great musicians, and influenced by composers like Ravel and Shostakovich, and also Stravinsky—not Gershwin, of course, but Bernstein. In Gershwin’s case, I’d say he was very much influenced by the French impressionists, and it’s a great combination—the American culture and Western European culture.”
While Say continues to perform and record core classical repertoire (French label Naïve released his takes on Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” “Waldstein,” and “Tempest” sonatas in 2005), he keeps experimenting, too. He is perhaps best known—or most notorious—in classical circles for his 2000 Teldec recording of Stravinsky’s epochal Rite of Spring. Using a piano arrangement for four hands by Stravinsky himself, Say recorded one part and then overdubbed himself, doing his best to make 88 keys sound like an entire orchestra in full cry soundtracking a pagan ritual. When he performs the four-handed Rite live, as he will as part of his upcoming program at Shriver Hall, he breaks another classical taboo and plays a computer-assisted Yamaha Disklavier piano that replicates half the parts as he pounds away.
And, of course, there’s his composing career, which keeps pace with his performing career. He has performed his compositions with orchestras around the world; his Concerto for Piano and Violin got its debut courtesy the legendary Berlin Philharmonic when Say was a mere 21. In 2003, Naïve released Black Earth, a disc of his compositions, which included the title suite, plus a chamber composition (Sonata for Violin and Piano); two pieces for piano and orchestra (including his atmospheric “Silk Road” concerto); his jazzy Paganini Variations; and the riotous Turkish jazz jam Dervish in Manhattan, recorded live with Kudsi Ergüner’s group and sounding a bit like Gershwin trying to capture the bustle of Istanbul’s Taksim Square rather than midtown Manhattan.
And the commissions continue to come in—last year he completed his first film score, for the Swiss movie Ultima Thule. Asked if it’s difficult to balance the demands of performing and composing, Say sounds as if he would find it difficult not to do both. “I think a composer has to be very analytical and also make subjective decisions which are also helping the piano player in seeing the composition as a whole,” he says. “And for playing piano, being a composer is a great thing, of course.”
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