Organised by the Cairo Opera House, the 21st Citadel Festival for Music and Singing, 20-30 July, is presenting performances at three venues within the Citadel of Salah El Din in Cairo: The Panorama Theatre, Seret El-Gabal, and El-Mahka Theatre. Since its inauguration in 1989, the aim of this festival has been to bring music to people who might not be interested in attending formal concerts. Every year, the summer breeze of these open-air performances attracts hundreds of friends and individuals; assorted programmes provide a range of features from Oriental music to folk performances, from jazz to symphonic.
This year Cairo Opera soloists joined by the Cairo Festival Orchestra, conducted by Nayer Nagui, opened the festival. Many singers are featured, including: Maha El Badri, Amira Ahmed, Medhat Saleh, Reem Kamal and others. Yehia Khalil, Magdi Boghdadi and Fathi Salama are giving jazz performances with their bands. On 24 July, the Cairo Festival Orchestra performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar (Symphony no. 2).
Despite the location and timing, the usual technical, organisational and logistical issues have shed a dark shadow on this potentially remarkable event. This year’s programme was less varied. And no amount of political instability can account for the same technical and organisational issues year after year.
One major issue for a festival aimed at a wide audience is the lack of publicity, for example. Listeners complained of not finding out about events in time; many, like the secondary school student Marwan – an Arabic music enthusiast – missed their favourite events in the first few days. Last-minute changes in the programme occurred frequently without prior warning, with Mai Farouk fans on 24 July ending up watching Tarek Fouad, for example. Mai Salah, a fine-arts student who attended the evening with a group of friends, said, “I like Taref Fouad, so it’s OK, but change remains unexpected.” Another audience member like Ahmed Abdalla, a computer engineer who arrived at the Citadel alone, was so frustrated he left.
Still, Sherine Mohamed, a young pharmacist who brought along her mother and her friend, praised the variety of the programming and the yearly opportunity it provides for exposure to a range of genres. Sherine’s mother says that, while most people like herself come to the Citadel for Arabic music and specifically singers like Medhat Saleh, Mohamed El Helw and Reem Kamal, she has listened to enough classical music by virtue of being a regular over the years to be able to name one or two compositions by Beethoven and looks forward to The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II. “The choice of classical music should be suitable for our ears. It would have been better had the orchestra performed a shorter composition or something easily recognised by the audience,” she commented on Korsakov’s Antar.
Dr. Hani, an orthopaedic surgeon, mentions the jazz festivals he attends with his wife Randa. Though he listens a lot to Arabic music, there are Russian classical composers that he likes – Rachmaninoff, for example. Unlike Sherine’s mother, he's opposed to mixing too many music genres in one festival. He feels the Citadel festival should focus on one genre only, pointing out that “most of the people attending the Citadel festival are not interested in classical music.”
For his part Abdelfattah, a steel worker from Mansoura who visited the festival with a friend, is a big fan of the Egyptian icon Om Kolthom, as well as classical stars like Nagat and Warda but also the Lebanese singer Elissa. “I am not an educated man, I don’t understand this Western music,” he commented on Korsakov’s Antar, “but I don’t mind trying to listen to it for a few minutes.” Emad, Abdelfattah’s friend, agrees, saying a little musical education would not hurt.
Thus, the Citadel festival brings together people from all walks of life, and it is important to note that only audience magnets should be selected from the classical repertoire; at the same time, the curators should never underestimate the audience’s capacity for appreciating good music or their critical engagement with performances. For Shadi, a shop owner from Mokattam, since “the festival takes place on three stages, each should be assigned a specific genre.”
More importantly, sound problems of the kind that marred the listening experience of both Michelle Rounds, a professional singer, and Saad Embabi, a retired electrical engineer, during Reem Kamal’s performance, must be overcome. “Reem Kamal has a very powerful voice. She wasn’t at her best today and the sound was not good,” Mohamed, a law student and one of Kamal’s devoted fans, remarked. Technical problems have been inseparable from the festival, and that seems totally unacceptable after 21 rounds.
In spite of the faults, however, the festival generated a lot of positive energy, as well as listeners, regardless of their backgrounds and preferences. Most seem ready to give classical music a go. Everyone is aware of the issues, but they only spoil the experience for a few. Once logistics and organization are effectively tackled, this will be an occasion of tremendous import.
photos by Sherif Sonbol