Musical Utopia in Gümüşlük

Over the years Kathryn and I have attended many wonderful summer schools and festivals. We adore the spirit, motivation, concept, and delivery of summer music making in all kinds of contexts and locations- it is pure joy to take music to new places and share it with others. To be a professional musician on the faculty of a summer course is to let go of paper work, day to day chores, and focus exclusively on creativity… with time off each day for leisure and socialising with new friends and colleagues. Summer schools are fabulous: Every single one I have attended has been uniquely individual! There are always special moments, key personalities, exceptional opportunities, and unforgettable memories. By their very nature summer academies encourage a sense of occasion. Participants often feel that attendance at courses can lead to key breakthroughs in their musical development. Eureka moments abound. Lifelong friendships are formed. Whether it be Dartington, Tanglewood, Aspen…. or Chetham’s international piano summer school (which Kathryn and I have ran to date on 21 occasions) there is no question that the convergence of musicians, students, audiences, and music lovers for a week or more in an exciting venue can, and usually does, produce magic…

…But no matter how experienced and used to summer festivals you may be, nothing could ever quite prepare you for the extraordinary Gümüşlük International Music Festival and Gümüşlük Festival Academy https://www.gumuslukfestival.org/en/ Held in an idyllically quaint small fishing village near Bodrum on the south west coast of Turkey, it is run by run by Eren Levendoğlu and has that outstanding international concert pianist Gülsin Onay as its artistic advisor: https://youtu.be/vphZdR-A2Qs

Now in its nineteenth year Gümüşlük has grown into a three month long event, curated by a dedicated team of five. It embraces the unique concept of ‘Suda Kumbla Tasta ‘, (‘on the water, in the sand. on the rocks’), with concerts and teaching literally taking place on the beach, (teaching in huts, jazz concerts on the sand during the twilight hours with indescribably beautiful sunsets) and open air classical concerts at Koyunbaba quarry (an ancient site from which stones were taken to construct the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the world).

Kathryn and I arrived at swelteringly hot Bodrum airport late on a Sunday evening in late July. We were promptly met by a friendly taxi driver and swiftly chauffeured along the constantly pulsating highways, still active with traffic as midnight approached. As we past all the endlessly commercial hotels we wondered what a piano academy would be like here. Generic international tourism of the biggest nature is unquestionably buoyant in this part of the world…but after less than an hour we left conventional holiday land far behind. Our arrival in Gumusluk necessitated skilful steering from our driver as he navigated his way- not with total confidence- down narrow roads and lanes towards the Myndos hotel in Gümüşlük, a small fishing village, where we promptly crashed for the night.

From the next morning our eyes never ceased to open in wonder and delight. Al fresco is very much de rigour in this part of the world. We were housed in a quaint quasi Goldilocks and the Three bears cottage next to similar dwellings. Mini caravans surrounded the site too, and breakfast on the lawn was served by friendly waiters whilst a pleasantly hot breeze from the adjacent Aegean sea added to the omniscient ambience and calm.

Serenity was very much the byword as we walked down the sea front, post-breakfast, to the festival office and music centre. All was relaxed, quiet and at one. The dreamy, totally content tourists and locals on the beach seemed fulfilled and content in a routine that has perhaps been practised here for centuries- sunbathing, swimming, chatting, sipping wine… Gümüşlük beach front could never be considered commercialised. On the contrary, its charmingly nostalgic, magical feel immediately reminded me of the spirit, if not quite the letter, of the 1954 Hollywood musical Brigadoon. Certainly, it felt like stepping back in time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qpk9JNUDr9k

To enter the central office of the festival you literally walk over the sand. The entire music site is on the beach. The views and sounds emanating from the Aegean as you practise, teach, work, and reflect immediately inspire, invigorate, and nurture everyone. Zimbabwe born Eren, founder and director of the festival and academy has lived and worked in Gümüşlük since graduating from the Guildhall School where she studied with Ronan O ’Hora. She exudes warm paternal values and reflective care. Eren’s dedicated team live and work on site literally all year round. Though accommodation is basic (wooden huts on the beach with communal toilets and a shared kitchen) everyone I met was consistently relaxed and seemingly at perfect ease. Kathryn and I were given a mini tour of the ‘campus,’ which included sheds which served double purposes as both bunk bed rooms as well as practice rooms (some good Yamaha uprights included) and the remarkable earth bag hall. Erin told us that some 1,049 bags were used to create what is the main teaching/concert venue in the beach music centre and that it was all constructed back in 2004 by four people, including herself! Inside was a wonderful Bösendorfer Grand which would be transported out for concerts on particular days, but otherwise was available throughout the festival for teaching and practising (an excellent Lithuanian piano technician based in Ankara was in residence throughout the festival).

With open air jazz concerts, a massive television screen for films, meals on the sand, a beach bar and café, the music centre was unquestionably the most exotically charged summer school venue we have ever attended. Wandering up the sand from the beach front to the earth bag hall for lessons each day gave us the pleasure of hearing everyone practising from the sheds- sounds of Chopin, Bach, Beethoven and even Cyril Scott came out whilst members of the general public continued to sunbathe and swim nearby. It was a though a Caribbean Beach holiday had been fused with Dartington summer school in a heady mix! Certainly, the open air pedagogy came into its own during lockdown- because of the outdoors nature of the event, the course was one of the very few in the world that did not need to stop in either 2020 or 2021.

A welcome fan provided relief in the earth bag hall during my first days of teaching there, with 50 minute daily lessons for each of the ten participants on the course. All were a total pleasure to work with, exuding talent, enthusiasm, and responsive conscientiousness. Tuna, shortly to begin studies in Berlin, brought a huge range of music from Bach to Scriabin, and seems destined for an exciting musical future. Berin, currently studying at the central music school in Moscow, showed much promise too in Schumann’s demanding G minor sonata. Then there was twelve year old Carmen, full of talent and bringing much performance flair to the Brahms G minor Ballade from opus 118. The day continued with delight after delight: 11 year old Eren from Karlsruhe played a wonderful Toccata by Clara Schumann, 17 year old Defne made a rich sonorous sound in Brahms Rhapsody no. 2 and Idil sparkled in Mendelssohn’s Andante and Rondo Capriccioso. The schedule concluded with Ozgur (Rachmaninov E minor Moment Musical op 16 no 4 and Chopin op 25 no12) Yagmur (Mozart B flat sonata) Papaya (Cyril Scott and Chopin) Dafne (Moszkowski) and Kyra (Bach Chromatic Fantasie). Ten wonderful promising pianists!

Over the years more than 1700 young musicians have benefitted from the academy. Gulsin has personally taught over 400 pianists, an extraordinary number. Many outstanding performer-teachers have visited Gümüşlük over the years including my own former teacher Peter Katin as well as Lilia Zilberstein and Martin Roscoe. But it is not just piano on offer. Alexander Baillie has come for ‘cello classes and there have been classes in violin, jazz, guitar, flute – and much more. There are also on the beach film presentations, and ‘green life’ events such as the remarkable ‘re-cycle, make and play’ workshop led by Handan Hacıbektaşoğlu, teaching children to make their own musical instruments from recycled materials.

In 2022 the festival programme was richly varied by any standards, with Gulsin providing wonderful recitals and performances, culminating in a Mozart concerto on the final night with the Biklent Youth Symphony Orchestra:


Kathryn and I were privileged to attend Gulsin’s open air evening recital, given at Zefirya Kültür Mekezi, with a breath-taking backdrop of naturalistic splendour. This was a lecture-recital with perceptively inspiring comments from Serhan Bali interspersing performances of Mozart, Bartók, Chopin and Franck. Concluding with a characteristically effervescent rendering of Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Polonaise Brilliante as an encore, it showed Gulsin to be an artist at the height of her powers, bringing sparkle and exquisite tenderness within a varied tonal palette that was always warm, realised with apparent effortlessness and relaxed poised. A masterclass in artistry of the highest calibre.

Our own concert started at 21.00hrs in the magnificent Ancient Stone Quarry in Koyunbaba. The stones from this quarry were used in the construction of the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and it was a privilege and honour to play in such an historic setting. Lighting, staging, and audience seats were most impressively arranged as the day light faded. The Green room was a Chevrolet-style van at the side of the stage where we waited before beginning our show with the Schubert F minor Fantasy. There was no need for electronic amplification in this venue- the acoustic was remarkably sympathetic to classical piano as we continued with the Poulenc sonata and concluded with Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ Certainly, open air concerts are never without their dramatic moments- page turner Rose had to stand on guard when various insects flew over the page… and at one stage a particularly strong gust of wind took up the whole book from which I was reading for one of my solo items (Eddie Gregson’s ‘Friday am’) so that I continued from memory whilst the book was retrieved from the floor several feet away! But it is so liberating to make music al fresco! The concert, and indeed the whole Gümüşlük experience is one that Kathryn and I will never forget. We emerged from our nine day guest artist residency with a huge sense of refreshment, stimulation, and joy. With Erin and Gulsin’s inspired vision and example, there seems no doubt that their academy and festival will continue to grow, thrive, and flourish for many decades to come.