It’s like a family reunion whenever Gurer Aykal comes to town. Which isn’t often.
The Turkish charmer retired as conductor of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra in 2004, ending a 12-year run here that boosted audiences, fundraising and the orchestra’s musicianship. He has returned to lead the orchestra as its conductor emeritus only twice — once in January 2005 and again a little more than eight years later in April 2013.
The accomplished conductor from Istanbul is back this week to help his old friends, the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, celebrate their 85th anniversary with concerts at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Oct. 23-24) in the Plaza Theatre.
“It’s like a visit from family, the dearest of friends who take up where they left off. He had such a warm rapport with the orchestra. We look forward to rekindling the friendship,” said Melissa Colgin-Abeln, EPSO’s principal flutist and an associate professor of music at UTEP.
There was magic in the air the last time the conductor and his former charges got together two years ago for a program that included a transcendent version of Ottorino Respighi’s ethereal “Pines of Rome.” Aykal, credited with elevating EPSO’s game when he led it from 1992 to 2004, reveled in the love that flowed freely between him, the musicians and audiences upon his long-awaited return two years ago.
“They welcomed me so warmly,” he recalled recently at EPSO’s offices in the Abraham Chavez Theatre building. “I didn’t understand how eight years had passed.”
“They were so glad to have him back,” added Ruth Ellen Jacobson, EPSO executive director. “They missed him very much.”
During his 12 years on the podium in El Paso, Aykal endeared himself to the orchestra’s musicians, audiences and financial supporters with an easy charm, a humble nature and a firm command of the music. Colgin-Abeln, one of the orchestra’s most accomplished musicians, was new to EPSO when Aykal succeeded El Paso’s Abraham Chavez Jr. as conductor. He terrified her.
“I’d look into his eyes and see the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks,” she remembered, laughing. But his level of knowledge and preparedness rubbed off on her and the rest of the musicians. “You always knew whether you’d done well or not,” the flutist said. “I learned more from him in all aspects. During his years here, he really honed our technique as an orchestra to play better.”
“The orchestra is my instrument,” Aykal said softly in his thick Turkish accent. “When they sound (good), it means I played my instrument well.”
Colgin-Abeln said the improvements Aykal made put EPSO in a better position to tour abroad. He took the orchestra on successful tours of Germany in 1996 and his native Turkey in 2000. “We were constantly inspired to do better,” Colgin-Abeln said. “He did what he had to do in order to take us on tour in 1996. He had sponsors. His reputation was on the line for bringing these musicians from West Texas.”
He has stayed busy since retiring from EPSO 11 years ago. Aykal is an adjunct professor of music at Turkey’s Bilkent University in Ankara, is in his second year as artistic director of the Atalya Piano Festival, and leads two new orchestras, the Antalya State Symphony Orchestra and the Mediterranean Philharmonic Orchestra, which includes musicians from France, Spain, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Morocco.
“At my age now,” the 73-year-old husband, father and grandfather said, “I enjoy it more.”
EPSO’s Jacobson said current EPSO conductor Bohuslav Rattay has tried to build on what Aykal and his successor, Sarah Ioannides, brought to the mix. Both of Aykal’s previous return appearances came while the orchestra was auditioning for new conductors. This time around, he’s inheriting a group in its third season under Rattay’s baton.
“Aykal will find a much different orchestra this time,” Jacobson said. “When they are under the tutelage of the same person, they start to play together better. Things have improved.”
The maestro admits that “my job is much easier now.” That also should make it easier to spend more time reconnecting with old friends — and maybe make a few new ones. He flew in last week from Istanbul to start catching up.
“It makes me happy because my past is here,” Aykal said. “I was here.”
He’s here to help EPSO celebrate its 85th anniversary. Jacobson hopes their conductor emeritus, who looks fit and youthful for a guy who turns 74 next year, will keep coming back periodically.
“We may want to do it,” she said, “until we’re 100.”
EPSO with Maestro Gurer Aykal
the Plaza Theatre
Friday and Saturday, Oct. 23-24.
Tickets at ticketmaster.com.