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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

An Open Letter To An Artist As Citizen

Should Turkish Concert Pianist/Composer Fazil Say's Concerts Have Been Canceled? Could We Have A Civil Conversation?

Dear Fazil Say,

We only said a quick hello backstage after your stunning Carnegie Hall recital on January 16. Although I requested a formal interview, your PR person refused my questions. It was my intention to clarify your harsh comments on X, which condemned Israel's response to the Hamas atrocities of October 7, when I was told you would comment on politics only on your social media.

I am well aware that many believe that the art of making music should be separated from the personal beliefs of the performer. And there is some truth to that as it allows people of opposing partisan views to enjoy the same music.

Your spiritually uninhibited music making transported us in Bach and Beethoven, paired with your own emotionally expressive compositions interpreting Turkish terrain. Your playing was like an evocation from within the piano; with commanding gestures of your hands, you conjured up the most diverse timbres and, at times, almost uncanny harmonies, which fascinated the breathlessly listening audience, including many Turkish ex-pats, bringing the classics and your original compositions equally close to them. Especially in Kara Toprak (Black Earth), you've uncovered aural traces of your heritage. Plucked piano strings, rather than modernity, evoke the sounds of Eastern instruments, further blurring the divide between Oriental and Occidental traditions.

But as one of Turkey's most celebrated and one of classical music's most outspoken artists, and because you take pride in your work across borders, I would have hoped for some clarification about the nuance and context of that political matter.

You caused quite a stir with your support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's post on X, where he accused Israel of a rocket strike on a hospital in Gaza, which has since been widely disproven. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "should stand trial for war crimes, genocide, and massacres," you commented, perhaps rashly or because you were ill-informed, but without later retraction. Even big news outlets corrected mistaken initial reports when it turned out to be a failed rocket launch by Hamas, which customarily hides weapons among civilians.

Thus, the Carnegie Hall concert comes shortly after you have been dropped from scheduled engagements with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Zurich, Bern, Geneva, and Lucerne, and you indignantly acknowledged that this happened in reaction to your social media comments. 

In your statement replying to the concert cancellations, you said you felt misunderstood. Surely, you can understand that accusing Israel of genocide feeds the deepening moral divide and bias against Israel and Jews around the world. I am sure you will understand my concern, not only on the grounds of your personal history as an artist but also since you have criticized Hamas - though you've fallen short of naming it as the terror organization it is. 

Having won the Young Concert Artists competition in 1994, which helped launch your international career, you have longstanding ties to New York and many Jewish friends in the field. Receiving the Beethoven Prize for Human Rights in 2016, you said:" I won this prize in the service of cross-cultural understanding…my life is based on that."

(Photo: With Young Concert Artist founder Susan Wadsworth and team)

In an October 13 video on Instagram, you identified with Israel's civilians' suffering when you said that "no one in the world would approve of innocent people being attacked with weapons, thousands of people dying..." and: "As someone who has been in Israel for 24 years, I have been saddened by terrorist incidents like everyone else."

I am a big believer in the artist having a voice as a citizen, and I applaud the many artists, including the great Jewish pianist Evgeny Kissin, who protested in your support when you were convicted by the Turkish court in 2012 of denigrating religion through comments you made on Twitter and which resulted in a 10-month suspended prison sentence. At the time, you were an outspoken critic of Turkey's Islamic-rooted government under Erdogan, who proclaimed the values of Islamic religion over those of democracy.

It is precisely because of these contradictions I am at a loss. Does this sudden agreement with Erdogan's unpredictable dealings only apply when it is directed against the Jewish State, which, no matter your criticism of Israel's policy, is still the only democracy in the region?

In your response to the cancellation of your concerts, you said, "I am for peace, and all my statements were in the spirit of peace..." I am reaching out to encourage you to consider the soft power of cultural diplomacy in this existential conflict to truly position yourself, as you say, on the "side of peace and humanity, making music to give hope to people."




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