The concert at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall included Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, featuring soloist Ayman El Hanbouly, and Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade Symphonic Suite.
“The saddest songs are the most beautiful,” wrote Alfred de Musset and there are no better words to describe Elgar’s Cello Concerto, in which he poured his innermost emotions and referred to as an “old man’s darling.”
During Saturday evening’s moving performance, Ayman El Hanbouly and his cello fused in one, becoming one aching soul.
There wasn’t an orchestral introduction as is usual in concertos. The cello, or Hanbouly, addressed the audience directly, like an old friend, confiding intimately his sorrow and despair with touching tremolos.
The orchestra gently answered and the first theme was passed between the cello and the orchestra several times, with increasing tension through various modulations, with the conductor, Hisham Gabr skillfully sustaining the balance between the cello and the orchestra.
The second theme was a softer dialogue, and after the reprise of the first theme, a few sighs plucked on the cello led directly to the second movement (Allegro Molto). Very fast and brief, this movement is often played in a contrasting light-hearted mood, like a glimpse of happy memories amidst the sombre concerto.
But Hanbouly maintained the melancholy throughout the different tempi of the entire work. The meditative elegy of the third movement (Adagio), was performed with emotional depth and led directly to the final movement where the anguish and despair reached their climax.
With a poignant expression of its grief, the cello concluded with a reprise of the heart-breaking recitative which opened the concerto, and the orchestra closed the piece with an intense blow.
During the second part of the concert, Gabr took the audience on a flying carpet through the fantastic world of The Thousand and One Nights with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade Suite.
“Scheherazade in particular is very close to the hearts of Egyptian audiences. The music stresses the drama, passion and adventure of those timeless tales, and is still regarded as one of the world’s greatest orchestral masterpieces,” observed Gabr, whose fresh approach to the famous piece was poetical.
Rimsky-Korsakov, the Master Magician of Orchestration, did not intend to write a narrative piece, but only to create different moods and colours with an oriental flavour, ingeniously handling the potential of every instrument and giving each some solo phrases in which to shine and enrich the texture.
This enabled the audience the opportunity to appreciate the individual talents of the musicians, at least the principals’, in solo and in tutti.
The movements’ titles are meant to direct the listener’s imagination. However, two motifs represent the framing protagonists: the brusque theme referring to the grim Sultan Schahryar, vigorously rendered by the brass and strings, opened the first movement.
In The Sea and Sinbad Ship, countered by the sweet Scheherazade motif: the high notes of the violin swirl over harp arpeggios. Beautifully performed on the violin by Yasser El Serafi, the recurrence of the theme throughout the piece evoked every night’s - or dawn’s - cliffhanger.
After the introduction, the first tale began with a majestic theme by the orchestra, suggesting the awe of the open sea, with string arpeggios evoking the pitching of the ship on the undulating waves, and solo phrases repeated by different instruments, the changing mood of the sea.
The Scheherazade theme introduced the second movement: The Tale of the Kalendar Prince. This title is intentionally vague as there are three Kalendar Princes stories. The bassoon started a captivating tune, repeated by the hautbois and other instruments in colourful variations, while the mood changed quickly with a brass fanfare and fierce notes suggesting thrilling adventures, gripping the audience. The Schahryar theme recurred expanding in an enormous final crescendo.
The romance of the third movement, The Young Prince and the Young Princess, exquisitely performed, transported the audience up into the heavens. The agitated final movement comprised varied and complex expressions with a rise in tension, riveting the audience.
Finally things calmed down, and the Schahryar theme softened. The Sultan was conquered; Scheherazade’s theme took over charmingly, marking her victory - the victory of wisdom over blind anger and, alas, the audience’s return to real life.
Ayman El Hanbouly – Cello
El Hanbouly is a staff member at the Cairo Conservatoire, Strings department. He has presented many concerts and recitals in Egypt, Germany, Italy, Belgium and France. He was awarded first prize at a local competition for musicians under 25.
In 1982, he represented Egypt in Sweden, where he performed with the World Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1998, he was invited to perform as soloist with Redland Symphony Orchestra in the US. In 2005, he was awarded the Egyptian State prize in Arts.
Hisham Gabr – Composer and Conductor
Gabr graduated with excellence from the Cairo Conservatoire, Flute Department in 1994. He joined the Cairo Symphony Orchestra in 1992.
In 2002, he participated in a workshop for conducting and was chosen among the best participants. He has studied conducting with many well-known conductors in Egypt and abroad (Christophe Mueller, Dominique Ruits and others).
He frequently conducts the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Cairo Opera Orchestra and BA Chamber Orchestra. Since 2010, he has been a contracted conductor at the Cairo Opera House.
Gabr also composes music to many features, short and documentary movies, and local and international theatre productions.