Leading KC cellist organized ‘Help for Turkey’ concert at The Ship

Ezgi Karakus performing at the Feb. 15 “Help for Turkey” concert at The Ship (photo by Todd Zimmer)

In a performance with Ensemble Ibérica, Ezgi Karakus rallied support for her devastated country

On the 10th Anniversary of the Republic of Turkey in 1933, the nation’s leader, Ataturk, declared, “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene!” (In English: “How happy is the one who says I am a Turk!”) It became a motto for the country.

It was that sense of Turkish solidarity that pervaded The Ship on Feb. 15 for the “Help for Turkey” concert. Of course, most of the participants were not from the country (or Syria), but all came to contribute funds for earthquake assistance. They did so at the appeal of Ezgi Karakus, who had organized the effort.

Karakus, who grew up in Izmir, Turkey, has been thrilling audiences with her cello in Kansas City since 2013.

For this night she brought in topnotch talent from the area — and beyond. The event was hosted by Beau Bledsoe and Ensemble Ibérica, of which Karakus is a regular member. Besides Bledsoe and Karakus (who also poignantly sang a favorite song from her homeland), the musicians included Rich Wheeler and John Currey from the Ensemble. There were guest artists — Molly McLaughlin on flute and visiting Argentinian singer Nadia Larcher. These performers delighted the audience in various combinations and styles. In addition, Kansas City artist Chico Sierra offered an original artwork, which was raffled off. All the proceeds — well over $30,000 — went to the charity Ahbap, working on the ground at the disaster site. (Dr. Akin Cil and his wife, Ayca Cil, local philanthropists also from Turkey, generously matched the first $10,000).

When the news about the earthquake broke, “life just stopped for me,” Karakus said. On her Facebook page she announced, “After 48 hours of watching the news, trying to reach out to my friends in Turkey and feeling helpless, I decided I have to do something.” She considered the opportunities and pinpointed Ahbap as “the most trusted organization.” She’d never done anything similar. “This was my first time hosting and organizing a fundraiser event; it was emotionally overwhelming.”

Kansas Citians have come to know Karakus through Ensemble Ibérica, but also through her many other involvements. She plays for the Fountain City Quartet and is a member of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas. She is also a teaching artist at the UMKC Conservatory, where she got her doctoral degree, and has been an instructor at several universities in the region. She co-directs Soundwave Academy, which concentrates on ear training, solfège (the use of sol-fa syllables — do re mi, etc.), and chamber music. In March 2018 she shared the Kauffman stage with Yo-Yo Ma, introducing her arrangement with composer Anil Altinsoy, of a Turkish folk song.

Ensemble Ibérica’s (left to right) Beau Bledsoe, John Currey, Ezgi Karakus and Rich Wheeler (photo by Todd Zimmer)

She is accustomed to the spotlight. Karakus won the concerto competition at Dokuz Eylul University State Conservatory in Turkey three times. She won first place in the Belle and Lynum Jackson Balshaw Music Competition and the Marshall University Concerto Competition. She performed a Mark Zanter world premiere at the 2013 National Conference of the Society of Composers Inc. at The Ohio State University School of Music. She has performed with orchestras in Europe and in the U.S., with chamber, jazz and world music groups. She even played in “Qiet,” a gypsy rock band, while in college.

Karakus had to begin young to accomplish all that. As a child, “I would spend hours playing popular Turkish songs on a toy keyboard,” she said. Her non-musical parents signed her up for piano and guitar lessons at age 9, but she didn’t take to those. Attending a Bremer String Quartet concert, she found her calling. The cello “captivated my attention with its unique style and energy,” Karakus related. At 12 she entered the State Conservatory in Izmir and for 10 years honed her talent there. In her last year, a visiting professor from Marshall University in West Virginia heard her play and offered her a full scholarship to the school. She had never been to the United States and spoke no English.

It wasn’t easy. Her cello broke on the flight over. Everything was foreign, bewildering and seemingly beyond her reach. She cried through her first year. She recalls the first time she was able to place her entire lunch order in English — “the workers and students applauded and cheered while everyone else in the cafeteria glazed over in confusion.”

But she has always been committed to being “competitive with myself and always push forward.” And push forward she did. Now she collaborates with artists from all genres and theaters. Her recordings can be found on most platforms.

The needs in Turkey and Syria are unimaginable but “anything helps,” as Karakus urged her supporters at the February performance at The Ship, where she followed her own rallying cry: “You will find a way to make it happen if you believe you can do something.”

Note: By mid-March, Ensemble Ibérica had raised more than $41,000 for earthquake assistance. The effort made the local news in Turkey March 11; on March 19, the concert at The Ship was streamed on Sahneport, a digital art forum in Turkey.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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