Orchestral engineering: The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic

The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic’s bold new album bridges east and west – what’s more it was recorded in a car garage. Clare Wiley reports from Istanbul

For the employees of an Istanbul BMW garage, this year’s Valentine’s Day was somewhat unique. On the ground floor, it was business as usual, with sales teams demonstrating the latest developments in German engineering for prospective customers. But upstairs, a full orchestra was rehearsing, snatches of strings and brass filtering down the stairwell.

The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (BIPO) had chosen this unlikely spot, a huge space not unlike an aircraft hangar, to record its third album. Under the baton of Austrian maestro Sascha Goetzel, the musicians perfected stretches of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, while Onyx Classics’ Matthew Cosgrove gave feedback from a pop-up studio in a back room of the hall.

‘The sound is actually quite good,’ says Cosgrove, who has worked with the orchestra for a number of years. ‘The immediate thing that struck me was how the sound of the orchestra has improved – every time I come here the orchestra gets better and better. It’s quite staggering. There’s a passion and drive to achieve the very best and go the extra mile.’

That motivation was clear from watching the players – there was intense concentration while recording, and a lot of constructive input from Goetzel. But during breaks, the musicians chatted and laughed. They also crowded into the studio to listen and examine their own playing.

The musicians are a charismatic and energetic bunch; the average age is 35, and over 90 per cent are Turkish. Indeed, that was a key goal for the orchestra’s overseeing institution, Borusan Culture and Arts [foundation], when it appointed Goetzel as artistic director and principal conductor in 2009. It was hoped the Viennese maestro would also act as a bridge between Istanbul and the artistic world of Western Europe.

BIPO and Sascha Goetzel recording in the car garage
BIPO and Sascha Goetzel recording in the car garage

‘One of the first things we discussed was that I wanted to create an open space for all musicians in Turkey,’ says Goetzel, as we talk later in the bright, airy home of the Borusan foundation. ‘Now you have to understand that this is not so easy, because all the musicians in the country know each other. We wanted to find a way of holding auditions so that people felt comfortable. We wanted to avoid a situation where, for example if you have a bad day at audition, then everyone in the music scene is talking about your bad audition at the Borusan Phil.’

Goetzel and the orchestra’s management team devised a system whereby musicians could audition anonymously, behind a screen. An assigned number would then protect identities when the results of the try-outs were publicised. ‘That’s how we protect all the players, so when they come for auditions, they know it’s a safe and open space. It’s also teaching young players how to audition for an international orchestra.’

It’s a tactic that has paid off: the orchestra’s first round of auditions under Goetzel attracted very few prospective players. But as word spread of the constructive audition environment, many more stepped forward. ‘Now after four or five years, we have a pool of around 140 musicians who regularly play in the orchestra,’ the conductor says. ‘And because of this high demand at auditions, we’ve developed a rotation system to make sure younger or less experienced musicians are able to play regularly.’

Read: Digital Theatre redefines how we view the arts

BIPO grew out of the Borusan Chamber Orchestra, one of the first cultural ventures of Borusan Holding, a major Turkish industrial conglomerate (which incidentally represents BMW in Turkey). The ensemble gave its first concert as the Philharmonic in 1999, and has since performed at a number of international festivals with high-profile soloists. It was during Goetzel’s first season that BIPO released its first recording, works by Respighi, Hindemith and Schmitt, followed by Music from the Machine Age in 2012, both released on Onyx.

For this third album, which also features Ippolitov-Ivanov’s atmospheric Caucasian Sketches, the orchestra has used original instruments from the Caucasus, Turkey and the Middle East. The aim was to create a sound which is closer to what the composers had intended when composing these pieces for western-style orchestras. Turkish and Arabian percussion, including the Oud, Ney, Darbuka, Def, Bendir, Kudüm as well as oriental triangles and cymbals, make appearances throughout Scheherazade. Balakirev’s Islamey: Oriental Fantasy and Erkin’s Köçekçe complete the recording.

Sascha Goetzel © Ozge Balkan
Sascha Goetzel © Ozge Balkan

What Goetzel has aimed to do is establish a strong connection between conductor and orchestra that results in a genuinely unique sound. ‘It’s always been my vision that there isn’t a dictatorship in front of the orchestra,’ he says. ‘Having been an orchestral musician myself for more than 15 years, my idea is that ours should be a symbiotic relationship. This means two organisms coming together to form one new body of sound. So when you make music, of course it’s a certain level of beautiful quality, but there’s also a metaphysical status that you have with the orchestra.’

‘And as a result, the audience can identify this connection by the way we perform,’ continues Goetzel. ‘That was our goal: to develop a characteristic sound that matches this conductor with this orchestra, making it easily recognisable even on the radio.’

It’s a testament to the young orchestra, and to Goetzel’s emphasis on creating a distinctive voice, that BIPO will make its debut at the BBC Proms this summer, with a classical celebration of the Orient. Alongside violinist Daniel Hope and under Goetzel’s baton, on 29 July the orchestra will perform Balakirev’s Islamey: Oriental Fantasy, Holst’s Beni Mora Op 29.1, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail K384, Handel’s Solomon, HWV, Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba and a new violin concerto from Gabriel Prokofiev, commemorating the First World War centenary.