Cairo is a big city...
Though it sounds like a cliché, the idea of the magnitude of this immense and immensely chaotic, taxing but incessantly surprising metropolis returns to our minds each time we stumble on something unique and are happy with a new discovery.
And Cairo’s music scene is one of the most faithful reflections of the city- it is vibrant, confusing but fascinating, and its endless offerings cater to all manner of tastes.
Looking for western classical music, we are usually directed to the Cairo Opera House. Many music regulars would probably also point to the American University in Cairo, the All Saints’ Cathedral, the El Sawy Culturewheel and the French Institute as locations where classical concerts are more or less regularly held.
But there is one more important spot, which for many years has hosted cultural as well as musical events on a regular basis: the Italian Cultural Centre. The history of the centre, which dates back to the early 1950s, is documented in the main hall, where posters of events featuring Egyptian and Italian artists testify to unforgettable memories.
One event that will no doubt be added to the centre’s log of memorable events took place on Sunday 31 May when Voces Intimae – one of the Italy’s best music ensembles, described by Belgium’s Knack Focus as the “best piano trio in the world” gave a concert.
Performing together since the 1990s, with their first recording made in 1999, the trio’s aim is “to restore music to the purity of its original form, and to realise the true intentions of the composer in their production of tone and phrasing. [Voces Intimae] hope to bring the authentic historical context back to life in their performance of the music.”
Playing on both period and modern instruments, pianist Roberto Cecchetti, violinist Luigi de Filippi and cellist Sandro Meo quickly developed a strong reputation in Europe, later touring Asia and the United States. Their ever-growing repertoire draws on over ten thousand pieces by dozens of composers and employs arrangements that include Voces Intimae’s own.
On their first visit to Egypt, their selection included compositions from the 18th and 19th centuries: Pergolesi, Boccherini, Mozart, Rossini, Mercadante, Donizetti, Schubert and Verdi. And since they often invite guest musicians to perform with them, this time they were joined by soprano Elisabetta Farris. Following their concert at the Italian Cultural Centre, the musicians performed in the Church of St George.
Their Cairo programme featured Schubert’s Ave Maria, Pergolesi’s Salve Regina, Mozart’s Ave Verum and Verdi’s aria “La Vergine degli Angeli” from the opera La forza del destino (The Power of Fate) among other works.
Soprano Elisabetta Farris (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
A choir will usually form a warm coating for the Ave Verum’s soprano lines, but the trio’s arrangement emphasised the unique elegance and sensitivity of Mozart’s work. Schubert’s Ave Maria too provided a platform on which de Filippi’s solo violin could poignantly balance soprano Elisabetta Farris.
“Music is about communication and reaching to the hearts of the listeners regardless of their religion or upbringing. This is why the term ‘sacred music’ can be at times misleading. You have many composers – such as Verdi for instance – who were not religiously devoted and yet composed ‘sacred music’…”
Thus, de Filippi, prior to the concert, explained the ensemble’s choice of repertoire. “I am sure that all those great composers would be pained to see all the divisions we create now, especially the separation that the world of religions has created,” he went on.
Apart from compositions for voice, the trio also played instrumental works in which the musicians had the opportunity to unleash the many colours that the compositions contain, embracing music with their personal style and language.
Among the highlights of the evening was a little known Boccherini sonata in three movements, which underscores the beauty of the instrument as a conveyor of passionate charges. Such honest dealing with the instrument as a tool that decodes the emotions was additionally emphasised by the intimate setting of the Italian Cultural Centre.
While developing close relations with the small audience, I tried to recapture the feeling of the 18th century salons, where some of those chamber compositions saw the light for the first time.
Whether it was Pergolesi, Mozart or Boccherini, whether we were transported to a salon or yearned for music inside a church, Voces Intimae brought the variety of seemingly distant journeys closer to our times in this specific hall. Most importantly, by providing a unique level of intimacy and adopting a light interpretation, the trio created a unique story while validating the beauty of each composition.
Continuously exploring musical territories, Voces Intimae have performed in the best concert halls: Wigmore Hall and St John’s Smith Square in London, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Frick Collection of New York, the Da Camera Society of Los Angeles, the Oberlin College of Oberlin, Ohio, among many others. They have released CDs, the most recent being Robert Schumann / Clara Wieck Schumann’s Piano Trios Op. 80 and 88. Their popularity helps them to draw audiences and opens many doors in a world where the life of the average classical musician is not a bed of roses.
“Let’s face it,” Roberto Cecchetti says, “for many people, classical music is not as important as it used to be before, and young people are not as keen to listen to this music genre. Perhaps the mistake that we, the musicians, made over the past decades was to consider that everyone should accept this music the way it is.”
He goes on to explain how this way of thinking challenged the possibility of reinventing and adapting the concerts to the expectations of new audiences, something that musicians began implementing only in recent years.
Though not without challenges, however, “classical music is not dead,” as de Filippi adds swiftly, citing examples of its presence around the world, and a rising interest in it in the Far East. Yet with the growing competition, only the most talented and creative musicians will make it into the limelight.
And it is clear enough that, as long as ensembles like Voces Intimae are playing, the music will stay alive. They have the power to cater to a large number of listeners who always look for new experiences and aesthetic discoveries. What remains is for the institutions that host them to exert maximum effort to bring this experience to the widest audience possible.
The Italian Cultural Centre’s theatre is the perfect size for chamber intimate concerts. In a metropolis with a population of 20 million, gems such as Voces Intimae deserve much stronger promotion so the listeners are not limited to a few dozen attendees, mostly students of the centre’s classes – judging by their behaviour, many came out of obligation – and their professors.
Still, Cairo is a big city...
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly