Nino Rota Ensemble entertains with film music

As a fortuitous lucky juxtaposition to the ongoing Istanbul Film Festival, Opus Amadeus Festival's penultimate concert on April 4 was devoted to the music of Italian films, primarily those of Federico Fellini. It's a pity that this concert wasn't officially connected to the film festival as an adjunct event because it brought to light one of the most significant characteristics of a successful film -- its musical score.

Two of the most prominent composers of Italian film music are Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, who contributed scores to most of Fellini's films, as well as those of Luchino Visconti and Sergio Leone. At the Fulya Art Center, the Nino Rota Ensemble from Ancona, Italy, a quintet of piano, flute, oboe, violin and cello, performed a delightful concert of 13 arrangements, all of which were dedicated to the memory of Fellini. Before the music started, Mehmet Mestci, the organizer of Opus Amadeus and a long-time film buff, gave a brief talk about Fellini and showed slides of his old movie posters.

That set the mood for the graceful, dance-infused melodies which, for the Italian subject matter depicted, emanated a melancholy quality with a touch of tragedy in a song format. As a contrast, Morricone's scores to “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Mission” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” changed to a less formal structure -- an “American” flavor as opposed to something that suggested old world traditions. This is the skill of a film composer: to give sonic emotional cues throughout; if it's stand-alone title music, to give the listener an emotional preview.

For those famous title tunes, the ensemble gave us the themes from “The Nights of Cabiria,” “Amarcord,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “8-1/2” and “La Strada,” waltzing us into the Italian salons and villages. As their encore, they played the Oscar-winning theme from “The Godfather,” advancing us into another decade's sensibilities -- less sentimental but still traditional -- and one of Rota's signature themes. The group's pianist and arranger, Deborah Vico, eloquently spoke to the audience in impeccably enunciated Italian, another musical event in itself.

MIAM in the spotlight

Istanbul Technical University's Center for Advanced Music Studies (MIAM) is becoming a cauldron of international activity. Many faculty members from other countries have recently been hired and the graduating students are stepping out into the world spotlight.

Their recent concert at Borusan Music House on April 3 presented impressive examples: eight chamber music compositions by both faculty and students conducted by Ivan Arion Karst, a Canadian conductor new to the institution. The compositions of Professors Adam Roberts, Kamran Ince and Amy Salsgiver and graduate students Murat Colak, Nazli Ufuk Sakioglu and Berkant Genckal demonstrated to the overflowing crowd that evening the exciting level of creativity that's cooking at MIAM.

Genckal showed a skill for extreme contrasts with ultra-dramatic textures in his scintillating “Silhouettes”; Ince's “Symphony in Blue” as performed by pianist Jerfi Aji exhibited savvy psychological timing in his post-minimal bits of self-professed “obsessive sameness”; and Roberts created dynamic arcs of expression in his “Pulse Satellite” that flowed from one mood to the next, using skillfully balanced effects.

Salsgiver, who played percussion throughout the program, also participated in her own “Full Open Moon Sky” for percussion trio. Its delicate beginning was like listening to distant stars twinkle, which later burst into an upbeat tonal and rhythmic pattern.

Colak's “O Sisyphus” for small chamber orchestra was another dramatic opus that referred to the chaotic mental circumstances of the mythical Sisyphus' dilemma: the repetitious activity of pushing a boulder uphill, only to have it roll immediately backward. Colak suggested such angst and bafflement through miasmal textures -- in one instance, as if a tape recorder were rewinding -- and the resignation with enigmatic sustained chords at the end. Colak, who is graduating this year, will pursue his doctor of musical arts (DMA) in composition at Boston University. MIAM's international presence will be alive and well.

Celestial cellist Chen

The ultra avant-garde is alive and well in Cafe Mitanni. This little cafe has become a hip spot in the backstreets of Beyoglu. It's a place where improvisational musicians of all sorts, from mainstream jazz to cutting edge 21st century sounds and their curious audiences have found a home.

On April 5, cellist-vocalist Audrey Chen dropped by to join friends for an hour-long improvisational groove. Chen, with her cello and a sound device strapped to her back, travels all over the world to participate with like-minded musicians who work in the unscripted musical realm. On this evening these were guitarists Sevket Akinci and Giray Gurkal, laptop artist Korhan Erel and singer Sumru Agiryuruyen.

Chen's world is a symphony of every kind of vocal sound imaginable while playing the cello. Her soundscapes include whispers, screeches, hums, heavy breathing, whistles, yodels, overtones, hissing and other ululations both on the inhale and on the exhale. Her cello is tuned to another solar system. That's the nice thing about strings -- their tuned notes can be altered any time. And the nice thing about Chen is her fearless trajectory into the exploration of what's possible, in order to access the impossible.

When I saw her curious piece of equipment, a wooden box with a zillion tiny intertwined filaments encased inside, I asked her if she was wired. “Oh, no I'm not wired at all,” she laughed. “I'm like a cavewoman. My cello is from 1850 and this crazy synth is handmade.” It turns out that she had originally trained as a serious Baroque music artist, but veered off that dial once she found that she could have more fun imitating creaking doors and jungle creatures. Her Istanbul colleagues, in exploring everything from micro-sounds to celestial roars, are enthusiastically on that same alternate dial's frequency.