Each Saturday, Cairo’s music aficionados flock to the Opera House Main Hall for a much needed break from the noise and the city and their daily cares. As the last bell sounds the ushers remind the attendees to hurry up and take their seats.
The lights in the hall are dimming while the stage lights become brighter to help the musicians take their seats. A voice in the hall reminds the audience to switch off their mobile phones and refrain from taking photographs (an injunction, alas, not always heeded). The concertmeister begins to tune the orchestra.
Once everyone is ready, the maestro enters to applause. The music sounds.
And as the Cairo Symphony Orchestra offers its weekly concert, the unique experience of its variety-filled programmes introducing different conductors and soloists begins to unfold.
Thus Saturday, 20 January: the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by its principal conductor and music director Ahmed El Saedi presented an evening that included Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to the Magic Flute, K. 622, Johannes Brahms’s Concerto no. 1 for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 15, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.
But for me the biggest draw was soloist Mohamed Shams, not only a talented Egyptian pianist but also an ambitious and dedicated musician of world-class stature.
Born to a musical family and a graduate of the Cairo Conservatory, Shams has established himself in the USA where he first travelled in 2000, winning first prize at the Brevard Music Festival competition in 2000 and 2002, and winning a Fulbright scholarship to study for a year in Washington DC in 2003; he completed his Master’s at the Manhattan School of Music.
In 2010 Shams reached the semi-finals at the Scottish International Piano Competition in Glasgow and won the Bryden Thomson prize, which led to a scholarship to join the Master of Music programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Music, Glasgow. In 2013, he won second prize at the Intercollegiate Beethoven Piano Competition in London. Shams was a featured artist on New York’s classical music radio station in 2012, and again in 2014 – twice.
He performed with numerous international orchestras and made his debut at the Carnegie Hall in 2015, with a solo recital at Weill Recital Hall. He is currently enrolled in the Artist Diploma Program at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut.
Shams’ remarkable list of achievements testifies to talent and skill, and his artistic sensitivity has prompted international critics to describe him as a “deeply impressive pianist of tremendous flair and intellectual strength”.
He is one of the brightest Egyptian stars of his generation, whose growth we have been able to admire for the past decade and a half. His journey from the Cairo Conservatory to the international stage is inspiring, but he remains humble, eager to learn and experience more.
Mohamed Shams performs with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra at the Cairo Opera House, 20 January 2018 (Photo: Salah Saeed / Cairo Opera House)
With each of his visits to Egypt, whether for a recital or a concert with an orchestra, Shams shares his ever greater intellectual and pianistic prowess. This time he gave a few concerts, including a solo recital at the Zamalek Cinema.
For his concert with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra he chose one of the most captivating concerti in piano literature, Concerto no. 1 from the great Johannes Brahms.
The choice of this composition is especially intriguing if we think about it as the meeting of two young people: the composer and the pianist, the latter being the interpreter or the translator of the composer’s soul.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), one of music’s famed three Bs (alongside Bach and Beethoven) was only 25-years old (1858) when he completed his Concerto no. 1 for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 15.
And, even if its 1859 premiere was not a success (probably because of the extremely shy Brahms playing it himself at an event he later described as “a brilliant and decisive – failure”, the work is an undeniable testimony to a musical genius. It is also a young man’s yearning for something big – beyond the scherzos, songs, sonatas and smaller compositions.
Only a few years earlier, in 1854, having heard Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 by Beethoven – a composer whose shadow intimidated Brahms throughout his life and especially during his 20 years of labour to complete his first Symphony, Op. 68 – Brahms felt the growing urge to liberate himself from the confines of smaller works. It was in 1854 too that Brahms reworked his Serenade No. 1 for wind and strings, Op. 11, a work initially written for a nonet, to be played by a full orchestra.
This need to explore the benefits of a big orchestra is probably among the driving forces behind Concerto no. 1, a landmark on Brahms’ career path, and one intertwined with his closeness to his mentor Robert Schumann’s widow Clara, a woman 14 years his senior, starting in 1856, though it is not clear what kind of relationship they had.
Here we have a young, passionate man immersed in music, challenged and inspired by great composers, searching for his own voice, admired by a remarkable woman as he learns to live and love against the odds, and pouring it all into an orchestral work.
This is how Brahms’s Concerto no. 1 becomes at the same time so sensual and compelling, lyrical and vigorous, introspective and dramatic: a captivating masterpiece filled with contradictory colours; a dive into the vast ocean of emotions, starting with the big and agitated orchestral introduction before the more lyrical piano steps in a few minutes later into the first movement (Maestoso) – the great contrast is already apparent and becomes a hallmark of the whole work.
The second movement (Adagio) is calm as a breathless spirit, evoking what Barenboim chose to refer to as “an almost religious atmosphere”. This is followed by the lively third and final movement (Rondo: Allegro non troppo). A vocabulary of youth to be expressed by the musicians.
And this, precisely, is what Mohamed Shams, a pianist in his early 30s, does.
In the concert hall, Shams faced the concerto’s grandeur with the skilful maturity of an international pianist. His intellectual ability helped him to overcome the technical challenges the work imposes on the performer.
In numerous performances by Shams I could see pastel colours, but as he moves forward in his pianistic development, the more introverted tones that characterised his performance only a few years ago sharpen and become deeper, more expressive, and bolder in a sense.
Brahms’ concerto no. 1 was a great platform for the pianist to voice his clear understanding of the composition. Shams, an Egyptian international pianist, has a sensitivity that deepens with each performance.
But we mustn’t overlook the conversational aspect of the Brahms’ work. Still emerging from his strong commitment to piano and chamber works, Op. 15 tells a love story of the solo instrument and the orchestra.
Throughout the piece there is no main protagonist and both forces, the piano and the orchestra, complete one another in emotional strength and musical vocabulary.
The dialogue of contrasts, the lyricism and thrills, the rise and fall of emotions: all run through the three movements, from piano to orchestra and back. Like a couple in love, the communication between them is fundamental. Brahms youthfulness is paralleled by Shams’ interpretation, and you can hear a lot of give and take going on between the two of them.
For its part the Cairo Symphony Orchestra played it safe, as they say – a respectful and valid approach, but one of a mature and maybe a slightly over-cautious mother in law whom everyone embraces despite her quirks. Still, Brahms and his fresh romantic passion ask for more.
In the second half of the concert, the orchestra moved to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67. But it was Shams’ Brahms that continued echoing in my mind as I left the concert hall. Indeed I am savouring this satisfying end of my week still, and looking forward to Shams’ next Cairo appearance.
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
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