Veteran Turkish-born pianist finally scores U.S. chart debut

Since 1998, Turkish-born pianist Fazil Say has performed hundreds of concerts around the world, and recorded almost a dozen classical albums. However, although many of those albums charted in Europe and Japan, none of them ever made it onto the Billboard charts in the United States.

Until last week, that is.

Despite never ranking a release previously, Say entered Billboard's Top Classical Albums chart with not one, but two titles. "Black Earth" (Naïve) bowed at No. 6, while "Beethoven: Appassionata, Waldstein, Tempest" (Naxos) came in at No. 22.

Just a few weeks before these chart debuts, Say performed Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and some of his own compositions from "Black Earth" four nights in a row with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Those performances were Say's only U.S. appearances this year, and they are most likely the reason why his albums received a sales boost.

While in Antalya, Turkey, for a piano festival, Say, whose first language is Turkish, spoke to billboard.com about what other factors played a role in his newfound U.S. success.

"In Baltimore, we had signing stations after each concert," Say says. "There was an amazing number of CDs I signed – 'Black Earth' more than the others. We had only four concerts, so I didn't appear much in the U.S. this year. I didn't do much interviews or media or TV shows, so probably word-of-mouth" helped fuel sales following the concerts.

"Black Earth" is Say's first recording under a new contract with Naïve, which will release all original material by the pianist.

"I have already released in Turkey three [albums of] my compositions," he notes. "They are not released outside of Turkey yet, but there is big interest to take them internationally.

"People are more interested in [original] compositions and are looking for more contemporary composers," he continues. "Everyone who is interpreting Mozart and Beethoven, it's all the same all the time. So of course people need new composers in this world. It's very important."

That is why, during performances, Say always introduces audiences to his own music.

"Always at every concert, I play both. I play a Mozart concerto, but for an encore piece I play 'Black Earth.' So there's always one or [more] compositions of mine in the concert," he says, adding, "Mozart and Beethoven is fantastic music, but to play my own pieces I'm freer, I must say."

Aside from Mozart and Beethoven, Say cites Stravinsky, Bartok and jazz pianist Art Tatum as his main influences. "Eastern European music is a big influence on my music," he adds, noting that he also occasionally performs with a jazz quartet at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

"Right now, jazz is inspiring me a lot," he says. Next year, in addition to releasing albums of Hayden sonatas and French concertos, he hopes to record with his jazz quartet.

Say, who performs up to 150 times a year, has almost 40 international performances scheduled between now and the new year. He will return to the United States in April, when he will perform at Shriver Hall in Baltimore, Krannert Center in Urbana, Ill., and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Links:
Artist site: www.fazilsay.net
Label sites: www.naiveclassique.com, www.naxos.com