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Turkish Ambassador’s Residence

By Stephen Neal Dennis

It is not often that musicians find themselves upstaged by the
wallpaper, but when the wallpaper is Turkish velvet nearly 100 years
old, elaborately and almost ecstatically embroidered with tulips, roses
and other flowers and covering the upper walls of a large salon in a
handsome1915 Washington mansion, sometimes musicians have to defer to
history. Last night at the Residence of the Turkish Ambassador, the
velvet wall-covering was only one example of a lengthy restoration
project beautifully accomplished.
Cellist Efe Baltacigel and pianist Anna Polonsky, who presented
the same concert last December to a New York audience at the Weill
Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall, were chosen a year ago to inaugurate the
renewed Residence by playing at the first concert in the renewed salon.
For two years, Washington residents who use the Buffalo Bridge on Que
Street to cross Rock Creek have been watching the elaborate restoration
project from a distance. From the polished splendors of the white
marble entrance hall to the gleaming sheen of the mahogany ceiling in
the large dining room, the building is full again of a calculated Beaux
Arts opulence.
The Embassy Series concert was precisely the sort of event the
house had been designed to accommodate when commissioned by a man
recorded in Washington social history as the Bottle Cap King, who
presciently selected an architect with extensive experience working in
Turkey. No bottle caps were visible, but a well-dressed audience of
socialites and music-lovers applauded almost raucously when Franck’s
Sonata in A Major was played triumphantly.
The two young musicians, both of whom live now in the
Philadelphia area, came originally from Turkey and Russia. Baltacigel
has a fine control of his cello, and Polonsky’s fingers ripple with
dexterity through the most difficult passages of modern Turkish music.
The opening composition, a sprightly Bach Sonata in G Major, was not
entirely successful. Written originally as a trio sonata for two
flutes and a bass continuo, it was adapted by Bach for other
instruments and had been readapted for cello and piano. Obviously it
was played on the instruments available, but might have been better
acoustically in the Turkish Residence salon if the piano had been
instead a harpsichord with a tighter range of volumes and power
When Baltacigel and Polonsky shifted into the fascinating 1935
Sonata for cello and piano by modern Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan
Saygun, Polonsky’s extravagant skills at the keyboard began to shine. For many listeners, this must have been their first exposure to modern
Turkish classical music, but Baltacigel and Polonsky made their
arguments convincingly. Polonsky presented a splendidly muscular
performance of a very difficult piano part. The second movement, which
often presents the cello in a solo format, was intensely melodic and
seemed softer, more Western in overall impact, though apparently it is
considered by musicologists an improvisation on a traditional Turkish
elegy form. The third movement was slightly jazzlike, a startling
conclusion from a musician who worked closely with Béla Bartók to study
Turkish folk music.
The concluding Franck Sonata was memorable, played by both
musicians with a legato of growing desire, only lightly withheld, in an
atmosphere of unutterable joy. Franck composed the piece as a wedding
gift to a Belgian violinist, and the piece is unashamedly emotional.

Stephen Neal Dennis