EFA Festival in Focus | International Izmir Festival

Simon Mundy, in interview with Filiz Sarper, Artistic Director of the International Izmir Festival looks at the festival’s history and current success

The cities that lie on the western coast of Anatolia are so ancient that you have to come through an awful lot of names of kingdoms and empires before you come to modern Izmir in ingénue Turkey. Homer was probably born there, at a time when the fall of Troy a little further north was no further back than the start of the Renaissance is to us. In his age Izmir was an independent city state, rather in the shadow of the more famous Ephesus eighty kilometres to the south, which had been the capital of the kingdom of Arzawa and by Homer's time was a member of the Greek Ionian League. Then the Lydian empire came, then the Persians and eventually Alexander the Great.

 Not so long ago really. After him the kingdom of Pergamon took over for a while, then Alexander's descendants in Egypt before the Romans were left in charge and decided the city's name was Smyrna (Marcus Aurelius had it rebuilt after a massive earthquake in 178 AD). For Europeans that remained the name until post-Ottoman Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet at the end of the 1920s and it was changed to the present Izmir. Elgar wrote a charming piano piece called In Smyrna during a visit in 1905. Amazingly, in 1920 the population was half Greek, half Turkish.

International Izmir Festival | Mischa Maisky & Kremerata Baltica

Do we need to know all that when discussing its early summer festival? Well, yes – because the festival was started thirty years ago as much to make use of the area's astonishing ancient venues as to bring in the highest quality music and theatre. When you listen to an orchestra in the amphitheatre you have the same view as when St. Paul addressed (rather unkindly) the Ephesians. One result of his little talk was that the Christians in Ephesus pulled down much of the temple of Artemis and Kybele a couple of centuries later, a period of intolerance thankfully rare in the region's history. At the Izmir Festival the world's best orchestras use the few columns that remain as a stunning backdrop.

 Back in the modern and sprawling town of Izmir, the third largest in Turkey, the festival makes use of the relatively new concert hall and arts centre, as well as the open air theatre (not quite as grand as the one in Ephesus which, the largest in the Roman Empire, seated 25,000) the churches and the Ottoman era castle. “We use the streets too,” says Filiz Sarper, the artistic director who has been with the festival since it was started with her uncle in 1987. “We wanted to bring back the open spirit and all the identities that have been living in these cities' for so many centuries.”

Fi̇liz EczacibaşI Sarper | Artistic Director of the International Izmir Festival

However, these are not easy times in the Aegean. The economics of the last few years have made funding harder to find. Downturns in currency values have also made bringing in top ensembles more expensive. Some of the initiatives that the festival prided itself on in the early years, such as the joint productions of ancient plays with the National Theatre of Greece in the theatre at Ephesus, have become more difficult since 2010, partly because of economic constraints. “So many people used to come over from the Aegean islands but not now.”  Just as worrying has been the downturn in the number of tourists visiting Turkey, put off by security and political concerns. “The audience used to be 60% from Europe and the rest of the world,” says Filiz, “now, sadly, it is much less. We hope that changes back again soon.” She emphasises the point that the atmosphere of the festival is open and welcoming.

 The flow of orchestras and musicians from outside Turkey is important to the festival because its local audience has a satisfactory diet of good local musicians all year round. “Our aim is to introduce them to different groups, and the best, that they do not have a chance to hear otherwise.”

 It might seem masochistic to listen to concerts in the heat of the Turkish summer but Filiz says it makes more sense than one might imagine. “So much of the point of the festival is to use the historic venues which are in the open air so it has to be in summer. But we don't usually start until 9.30 at night so the worst of the heat is over and it is pleasant to sit out in the late evenings.” She adds that her tourist audience has, by that time, had a chance to relax after the sightseeing or recover after a day on the beaches. However, even the climate seems to be less certain now. “We have begun to have rain sometimes in June, which never used to happen.”

International Izmir Festival | Viyana senfoni

The festival is well aware that it has a duty to Turkish music as well as its visitors. Every two years it hosts a competition for young Turkish composers. For 2018 the task is to write a piano concerto to be performed by the Izmir Symphony Orchestra. The deadline is the end of January so anyone starting now (at the end of 2017) will need to write at Prokofiev's speed. The foundation that organises the festival also has a collection of over three hundred instruments from the region and near east, and a small museum to exhibit and perform in during the year. In co-operation with the University of the Aegean it is working on reconstructions of music making – a Turkish equivalent to Europe's early music movement.

 Despite all the disincentives of these years, the Izmir Festival offers a wonderful fusion of ancient architecture and music from more recent times. Much more importantly it constantly demonstrates the continuity of culture on the shores of the Aegean – empires, kingdoms and politicians come and go but civilisation recovers and its arts are undiminished.

International Izmir Festival | Shuman'ın Büyüsüne Yolculuk

Further Information on the International Izmir Festival | Izmir & Ephesus

The International Izmir Festival reaching an audience expressed in millions has been proudly providing opportunities to numerous world renowned artists to perform at unique historical venues. As a festival of great prestige and high artistic standards, it has been organised in Izmir, a city located on the Aegean Coast and right in the middle of several historical places and popular touristic resorts of Turkey. The festival covering a wide spectrum of classical, traditional and contemporary works in music, ballet, theatre and opera including both international and national performances, has proved itself to be one of the cultural and intellectual corner stones of Turkey, attracting great attendance from locals and foreigners visiting Turkey alike. From its first inception, the festival has made a special effort to make the Ancient city of Ephesus, which is one of the best  preserved antique cities of the world, and other historical heritage sites of Izmir to be included among its venues. The Ephesus, where the festival holds performances is listed as a UNESCO site.