The following article will sadly fall short of communicating the energy and high spirits coming across in conversation with Betin Güneş. It is likewise impossible to share the melodies that, during our interview, he would play between replies on his piano that was within arm’s reach. Still, I’m glad that it will at least open up a space for you to encounter this composer, conductor and musician who believes with all his heart in the uniting and healing power of music, who derives his high spirits from it and whose heart, in short, beats with music. I welcome you to the world of Betin Güneş, where Western lutes and the tambur, qanun, and ney preside side by side and artists such as Beethoven and Mozart coexist with Aşık Veysel and Dede Efendi.

Interview by Sedef İlgiç and Nazlı Sağdıç Pilcz

Text by Sedef İlgiç

Edited by Nükhet Polat

Translated to English by Zeynep Beler

“I’m Istanbul-born, a child of the Bosphorus. I grew up in Beykoz and studied at the Istanbul State Conservatory,” begins Betin Güneş, who speaks of his instructors with reverence. After graduating from the conservatory, he also completed studies in journalism, as “musicians get no respect in Turkey”. Then he promptly arrived in Cologne “at the Cologne University of Music” and completed studies in four departments there. He has lived in Germany ever since.

Betin Güneş, with his permissiion.

“To keep it brief, you are speaking to the only Turkish composer with twenty three symphonies under his belt. Even Beethoven died after the ninth one,” he jokes. Mr. Güneş is not only a composer; although his main expertise is piano, he is also a conductor. 

The reason for his staying in Germany may be the value that is placed in music and art there. “Their former president Walter Scheel came up to me after I played a concert in Bonn and said to me, just imagine: ‘I would be willing to exchange my profession with yours just to be able to play the piano like you.’ Enough said. That’s the level they see art on. They value you, when you say you’re a composer; they think of Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky.”

In Turkey, on the other hand, it is both more difficult to have access to a piano and to feel that one is valued in this way. 

My name is Betin Güneş. I have a German ID as well, but that’s where the similarity ends. If I cut myself, I might bleed the Bosphorus. Still, when I conduct the state symphony orchestra I make a fraction of what my students in Germany do. Opportunities are limited for Turks.

I Thought of the Turkish Chamber Orchestra as the National Team

Since 1988, Betin Güneş has been working as chief conductor of the Cologne Symphony Orchestra and Ensemble Mondial Chamber Orchestra. The Turkish Chamber Orchestra, on the other hand, he founded by bringing together the soloists of the two orchestras; it is comprised of musicians he has performed with for over twenty-five years. He opted for a chamber orchestra because it would travel easily.

“I thought of the Turkish Chamber Orchestra as the national team. Our concertmaster is Hungarian, our associate concertmaster is Japanese, all other members are from all sorts of different nations including Russians, Poles and Germans.” With the help of this international cadre, he has been compiling the operas of symphony and philharmonic orchestras. The denotation of “Turk” in the title of the orchestra carries the additional task of fighting prejudice. The orchestra also plays Mozart pieces arranged by Betin Güneş, who at times adds percussion, such as the darbuka, to these pieces where he sees fit. 

Turkish Chamber Orchestra, with former Germany President Angela Merkel.

They “even performed for Merkel”. “She heard our violin concerto. Coming back to the issue of value. It was a concert at the parliament, and we were trying to figure out how to park our vehicles. They had had the police close off an avenue so that we could park comfortably and get on with our concert.”

Betin Güneş, who in addition to the symphony orchestras of the state conducted many orchestras including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, WDR Orchestra, and Philharmonie Köln, and whose original work has been performed by the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin and London, continues to work and be productive. He plans to realize a concert series with his current project 7 Nota 7 Kıta [7 Notes 7 Continents] that will be carried out in 75 countries.

Let’s end on these words by Betin Güneş that sum up his larger philosophy: 

“Music gives one energy and will to live. That’s why we have to instill it in young people, as well as our own selves. If we could only distribute it like the Covid vaccine, it would fix the world, cleanse it of war and weapons. Music can actually help us communicate. It has no language, religion or ethnicity. Let us join hands.”

This piece is written in the framework of #60JahreMusik project financed by Berlin Yunus Emre Institute.

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