Cairo Opera House's Main Hall is usually identified with operas, ballets, Western classical and Arabic music events as well as other large shows. Those established formats bring along a lot of artistic productions whose content and execution is often very predictable on both levels.
However, it does happen, even if occasionally, that Egypt's opera surprises us with particularly unique initiatives, music projects whose value surpasses the concept of a regular evening at the opera.
Such was the case of a concert on Friday, 8 May, that featured the Sound of Egypt Orchestra conducted by founder Ahmed Atef and playing music from well known Egyptian movies.
Though the Sound of Egypt Orchestra is not completely new to Cairo audiences, it seems now to be gaining well deserved momentum. The aim of the orchestra is to shed light on Egypt's incidental music, incorporating film scores, music for television series and theatre plays.
Founded in 2013, the orchestra consists of musicians from the Cairo Symphony and Cairo Opera orchestras, members of the Arabic music choir and ensemble, in addition to a few musicians from outside the opera. With a number of concerts under their belt, slowly but surely the Sound of Egypt Orchestra is beginning to establish itself as an important channel for music and musicians to present their work, while audiences have an opportunity to revisit known compositions, notice the unnoticed and get reacquainted with the many valuable works of Egyptian composers.
And there is undeniably an enormous wealth that can and should be brought to light. Fouad El-Zahery (1916-1988), Ali Ismail (1922-1974), Baligh Hamdi (1932-1993), Greek living in Egypt Andrea Ryder (1908–1971), and many other composers have written music for hundreds of films produced in Egypt cinema's golden age, working alongside renowned directors such as Youssef Chahine, Hassan Al-Imam, Salah Abu Seif, Henry Barakat, and Ezzel Dine Zulficar.
Later generations brought Ammar El-Sherei, Omar Khorshid, Omar Khairat, Rageh Daoud, followed by their younger counterparts Khaled Hammad, Tamer Karawan, Amr Ismail, Amr Abu Zekry, Hisham Gabr, Ahmed Atef, Mohamed Saad Basha and numerous others. The list is as impressive as the number of films, television series and theatre plays produced annually.
Atef usually picks a theme around which he tailors the concert's programme. In March, the Sound of Egypt Orchestra leaned on "comedy" as its leading motto.
The 8 May evening was dubbed "Classics of National Drama." The concert was a journey through reflections on Egyptian identity, its people and their burdens as captured by filmmakers, with fragments of movies projected onto the large screen onstage.
Sound of Egypt Orchestra (Photo: Zafar Azimov, courtesy of Ahmed Atef)
Many works were from movies of the 1960s: Shafiqa El-Qebteya (Shafiqa the Copt, 1962, music by Ali Ismail); El-Kahira 30 (Cairo 30, 1966, music by Fouad El Zeheiry), an adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s El-Qahira El-Jadida (The New Cairo); Qasr El-Shauq (1967, music by Ali Ismail), another drama based on Mahfouz's novel; Al-Ard (The Land, 1969, music by Ali Ismail), an adaptation of Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sharqawi’s book chronicling Upper Egypt's rural life entwined in often-bloody political struggles; The Bullet is Still in my Pocket (music by Omar Khorshid), a film about Egypt post-1967 until the 1973 War, etc. Though the golden age of Egyptian cinema had a large share in the evening, other compositions were taken from more recent films and series.
Atef included a number of his own works in the programming, one of them being music to Hanan Rady's Human Comedy, a documentary that juxtaposes the concepts of democracy claimed by world leaders and how they steer the realities of life and death in many corners of the world, be it Palestine, the Gulf War, Abu Ghraib Prison, Somalia, China's Tibet, Rwanda and Burundi, Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with many images of poverty, injustice and discrimination projected to the heartbreaking emotional music. Translation of the mostly English text in the documentary would have been better spoken to listeners in Arabic language.
Naturally, some compositions met particularly warm receptions as audiences identified the music in films that they cherish. In others, listeners discovered or rediscovered musical gems.
On its founding, the first concerts of the Sound of Egypt Orchestra included a large assortment of drama music by Atef, at times presented in new music formats. With time he began incorporating works by other composers. Though he is eager to present as many compositions as possible, the task is not as simple as it may sound.
Atef seems to be juggling between contemporary composers who are willing to provide scores of their compositions and older works that he needs to write from scratch since no scores are available. Understandably, the latter is a Herculean job, which involves weeks of listening to music, deciphering all the music lines and recreating the whole orchestration.
"We have such a great wealth in Egyptian drama music, yet unfortunately almost none of it is documented." Atef explains. Another challenge is the sometimes very low quality of older films, a condition that deeply saddens Atef when he mentions Egypt's cultural heritage. He adds that though many recent composers have scores of their works, "not all of them are eager to share them with the Sound of Egypt Orchestra."
Ahmed Atef conducts the Sound of Egypt Orchestra (Photo: Zafar Azimov, courtesy of Ahmed Atef)
Despite these obstacles Atef remains positive as he reveals the dynamic plans he has sketched for the orchestra. "In the last concert we included a choir. I hope to move a step further and reach out to well known songs from movies, inviting known singers to perform them. Egyptian audiences have a warm relation with many songs from older movies, and they can be one of the channels to attracting even larger numbers of listeners as, in the meanwhile, we provide to them the many riches of instrumental music."
Atef reveals that the orchestra already has plans to perform during the summer: at the Citadel Festival of Music and Song taking place at the Salah El-Din Citadel in Cairo, the Citadel of Qaitbay Festival in Alexandria, as well as at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
With big plans of expansion, the Sound of Egypt Orchestra is probably one of the most important recent musical initiatives whose benefits touch many cultural and artistic levels. Beginning with composers, the orchestra becomes a crucial platform for them to present their works outside cinema and television screens.
Audiences have an opportunity to revisit, as well as become more aware of, music that constitutes an important part of cinema production. Too often, compositions that set the background to many scenes are disregarded by film followers who focus on the plot, actors, and at times directors. In this context, the Sound of Egypt Orchestra points to the importance of becoming more aware of incidental music and its composers — a message for film fascinados, as well as film critics, along with film and theatre festival organisers.
Having such an important project on the scene, it is equally important for all parties, including technicians at the Cairo Opera House, to support it. No doubt, the evening was an enjoyable experience for the large audience filling the Main Hall. Yet, light design left large room for improvement. The series of light beams hitting the stage and changing colour to the rhythm of the music were disturbing in the concert's first half, challenging the interesting — and important — visuals screened upstage.
This "creative glitch," however, was corrected in the second half of the evening, allowing the audience to fully indulge in the journey evoked by the music. Closing the evening with compositions by Amar El-Sherei and Omar Khairat, the audience left the Opera House Main Hall uplifted, chitchatting about both films and music.