Held between 18 July and 31 August, this year's Salzburg Festival dedicated a portion of its programming to the meeting of Christian and Islamic music.
When three years ago, Alexander Pereira, the festival's artistic director, took charge of this prestigious music and theatre event's management, he decided to infuse the festival with a "spiritual awakening." This initiative is linked to the city of Salzburg, considered a stronghold of Catholicism. As such, oratorios and masses by Monteverdi, Haydn, Handel and Mozart, performed by the world's best orchestras and choirs started preceding operas, concerts and theatre plays.
At the same time, Pereira, who this autumn will head to Milan where he was recently appointed general manager of Teatro alla Scala, wanted to show that Salzburg is a city open to all artistic expressions. The first of the spiritual overtures embraced Judaism, followed by reaching to Buddhism last year. In its turn, Islam was at the heart of this year’s edition.
As such the musical expression in Islam was represented by Egyptian Sufi Al-Tariqa Al-Gazoulia, marking the troupe's first appearance outside Cairo. To accentuate the mutual understanding between the religions, members of the Al-Tariqa Al-Gazoulia have gladly accepted to perform in a Catholic church in Salzburg.
For three consecutive evenings of July, the huge Kollegienkirche filled to the brim. The listeners enjoyed men in white jalabiyas (traditional Egyptian garment) forming a circle around Sheikh Salem Algazouly.
The first evening, 20 July, was solely dedicated to Sufi songs. Following the ritual calls to Allah, the traditional oud, nay, qanun, riq and douffe instruments kicked in, creating a solemn atmosphere in the church, with an audience that was extremely attentive, touched and grateful.
The second evening, also held in the Kollegienkirche, saw the world premiere of a work by Hossam Mahmoud, an Egyptian composer living between Cairo and Salzburg. In fact, it was Mahmoud who recommended the Sufi troupe to the festival's organizers. Performing Seelenfäden (Sons of the Soul), a work commissioned by the Salzburger Festspiele, Mahmoud builds a bridge between traditional Sufi songs and their interpretation found in the words of the famous tenth century mystic Sufi poet Mansur Al-Hallaj.
Mahmoud's work created a palpable link between musical expressions of different cultures as it brought together a Sufi choir (Al-Tariqa Al-Gazoulia), a classical choir (The Bachchor Salzburg), an instrumental ensemble (Austrian Contemporary Music Ensemble) and oud played by the composer himself. As Al-Tariqa Al-Gazoulia praised Allah, the voices of the choir recounted the last words of the mystic, all infusing the church with a very dense atmosphere. Finally, the instrumental ensemble accentuated several oriental colors, placing the percussionist in the center of their interpretation.
It was in the third evening that Frank Stadler, a renowned violinist, joined members of Al-Tariqa Al-Gazoulia, transporting the audience into a world of ecstasy with his interpretation of J.S. Bach's second violin partita, Chaconne. By the end of the evening, the audience was treated to an improvisation via violin, lute, eastern flute, qanun and percussions.
No doubt, the "Men in White" have captured the audience's hearts. An Austrian journalist has dubbed them "ambassadors of tolerance and peace of Islam" at a time when the whole world‘s attention seems to be drawn to the terrorists of ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda.
In addition to music performances, the Salzburg Festival organized an international symposium with the theme: Understanding Islam: A Challenge for Europe.
Two world premieres
Egypt’s presence during this year's Salzburg Festival was very obvious, in large part because of its contemporary composers.
During the festival, Hossam Mahmoud performed one more of his compositions, Tarab 5. His name however is not new to the Austrian audience. His Elegy to the Martyrs of the January 25 Revolution was also performed in Vienna. In March 2013 his opera titled 18 Days was staged in one of Salzburg's theatres bringing him the Grand Prix des Arts for the same year.
In his turn, during the Salzburg Festival, Amr Okba gave world premiere of his work Rhadopis, as part of the section New Music from the World of Islam. "Based on the novel by Naguib Mahfouz, Rhadopis speaks of the responsibility of governing policy toward the people and the abuse of power by the representatives of religion," said Okba, who dedicated his work to martyrs of the revolution in Tahrir Square.