Istanbul’s Rachmaninoff Competition

April 1 is the birthday of the great Russian romantic composer and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). What better way to commemorate the extraordinary contributions he made to the world of piano music, his 140th birthday and the 70th year of his death, than to host a piano competition in his name.

In 2011, the Turkish-Russian Culture Foundation, the Russian Consulate-General in Istanbul and the Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatory hosted the first edition of the Sergei Rachmaninoff Piano Competition in Istanbul.

Rachmaninoff’s piano music represents the height of pianistic romanticism, requires powerful technical prowess and is treasured for its deeply melancholic melodies.

From March 30 to April 1 this year, the second Istanbul edition was held, again at the Russian Consulate in Beyoglu.

At the final round on April 1, two young Istanbul pianists took second and third prizes of TL 4,000 and TL 2,500 respectively. (No first prize was awarded.) Kadir Cem Arikan, a 19-year-old student at Istanbul University State Conservatory, won the second prize. Ceren Su Åžahin, an 18-year-old student at Mimar Sinan University, won the third. Honorable mentions were given to Yagmur Atasoy, a student at Mimar Sinan, and Tutu Aydinoglu, who studied at Baku State Music Academy and Istanbul University.

The competitors are required to show mastery of many of Rachmaninoff’s piano works in addition to other standard repertoire and works of Ahmed Adnan Saygun. The jury members this year were Turkish State Artists Idil Biret, Huseyin Sermet and Vera Erman, Mikhail Voskresensky (professor at Scriabin Foundation), Yuri Didenko (assistant professor at Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory), Seher Tanriyar (professor at Mimar Sinan University) and Hulya Tarcan (piano professor at large).

At the awards ceremony in the evening, following the third and final round in the afternoon, the two winners were announced and they each performed a piece by Rachmaninoff. But before the music began, Russian Consul-General Alexey Yerkhov paid the proper respects to Viktor Merzhanov, the revered piano professor from Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory, who was the founder of the competition and served on the 2011 jury at the age of 93. He passed away last year.

Two years ago, Merzhanov had said: “This competition serves many more functions than merely being just another competition. It has opened a new chapter in the dialogue between Turkey and Russia.”

Beyoglu Mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan waxed eloquent about his municipality’s role. “The most important thing about Beyoglu is that it continues to be the heart of Istanbul’s culture, and it also was the home of Giuseppe Donizetti, the brother of the great opera composer Gaetano Donizetti. In 1828, Giuseppe was Instructor General of the Imperial Ottoman Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II.” Demircan was proud to announce the next item: “We will witness the opening of a new Russian Cultural Center on Imam Adnan Sokak very soon. It’s wonderful to see how music can unite us all.”

Fatih Baltaci, the president of the Turkish Russian Culture Foundation had more good news: “Up until now, the Rachmaninoff Competition was only open to Turkish pianists. The next editions will be international.”

In 2015, Rachmaninoff’s music and birthday will be grandly honored, perhaps at Beyoglu’s new Russian Cultural Center, slated to open this month with a festival of Russian culture.