Seasonal concerns at the opening of the new orchestral season

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 8 Sep 2011

The Cairo Symphony Orchestra has only announced the first four concerts of the new season so the audience still awaits a complete programme

Cairo Symphony Orchestra (photo by Sherif Sonbol)

The Cairo Symphony Orchestra has only now announced the opening of its new season 2011/2012. Only four concerts have been officially announced, scheduled on 17 September, 24 September, 1 October and 15 October. The first concert, on 17 September, featuring the Japanese guest conductor Hirofumi Yoshida, will include works by P.I. Tchaikovsky.

Yet a whole programme announced prior to the opening of a news season is essential not only for the audience to understand the orchestra’s plans but also as a testimony to the vision of the orchestra. This is the first time in history of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra that it has not provided the details of its complete symphonic season.

People closely following the orchestra’s activities, especially musicians and staff, are aware of internal problems that have been escalating for months if not years. At the same time Marcello Mottadelli’s three-year marriage to the orchestra, on coming to an end, left the principal conductor chair empty – and so it has been since June 2011. So far, no clear decisions have been presented regarding the new conductor. What makes the situation even more astonishing is the fact that, for the Cairo Opera House management, the departure of the Italian conductor was already planned for January 2011: neither were steps taken to fill the resulting vacuum, nor were official announcements made in this regard.  

The absence of both, a principal conductor and a programme sheds a dark shadow over the history of an orchestra which, once upon a time, was the pride of Egypt, the shiny star of the Middle East’s music scene. Suffice to say that no other country in the Middle East has had an Opera House with decades of history that served, with all its companies, as a role model for many countries. The Cairo Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1959 (the same year the Cairo Conservatory was founded), was one of the first serious musical projects initiated by the state.

The orchestra had the old opera house, Khedivial Royal Opera House built in 1869, as its first home. Franz Litschauer from Austria was the orchestra’s first conductor (1959-1960), and later on two Egyptian conductors, Ahmed Ebeid and Youssef Elsisi replaced him. For most of the orchestra’s history, its musicians were in majority foreigners, with Egyptians representing, depending on the season, 30-40 percent of the orchestra. In one chapter of the book by Sherifa Zuhur, Images of enchantment: visual and performing arts of the Middle East, the music critic Selim Sednaoui explains the presence of Eastern European musicians in the orchestra, linking it to the Nasserist era in Egypt as well as further dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was in 2000s that the number of Egyptian musicians increased reaching, 80 percent.

The orchestra has faced many challenges. Following the tragic burning of the old opera house in 1971, concerts were moved to Al Gomhoria Theatre. It was not until 1988 that the orchestra found a new home at the new Cairo Opera House, situated in Zamalek.

Several principal conductors took orchestra into their hands: but Ahmed El Saedy was the longest serving principal conductor, and between 1991 and 2003 he undeniably raised the artistic level of the orchestra. By the end of his term, the orchestra’s repertoire included the most demanding classical compositions, which it was performing in Egypt and in the internationally renowned concert halls.

Early 2000s brought General Samir Farag as the head of the Cairo Opera House. During his directorship, the whole Opera House underwent a reshuffling of artistic priorities. A military person is not expected to understand musical dynamics or the requirements of an artistic institution; but this remains inexcusable. The slow decay of artistic values, which infiltrated the opera – more powerful each consecutive year – started affecting all the companies working under its umbrella. During Farag’s management, internal quarrels started escalating that eventually led to the removal of El Saedy. Subsequent directors of the Opera may not have been strong enough to bring back it years of glory.

Between 2003 and June 2011, a number of foreign musicians played the role of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor: Sergio Cardenas from Mexico, Christoph-Mathias Mueller from Switzerland, Steven Lloyd from the UK, Andreas Sporri from Switzerland; some of them added valuable artistic input, but none of them had the chance to develop a long-term musical vision. The last one, Marcello Mottadelli, was possible the least successful. At the same time, conductors no longer had any influence on much of the programming as responsibility of it went to local management.

During the last decade, stories of the opera’s power struggles and alleged corruption started escalating and became a topic of interest among employees and observers-alike, especially after the January 25 Revolution. Today, thick layers of dust make it impossible to pin down one reason for the artistic decline which has equally affected the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. Many people have contributed to the damage done to the Cairo Opera House and subsequently to the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, starting from employees and management trapped in various non-artistic priorities, all the way to the Ministry of Culture turning a blind eye.

Today, in September 2011, at the threshold of the new symphonic season, the annual programme of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra has not been announced, the orchestra’s web site is not working, nor do we know who  the new principal conductor will be. The only solid information that the orchestra is providing at this stage consists of four concerts to be conducted by Hirofumi Yoshida from Japan, Marc Kissoczy from Switzerland, Ahmed El Saedi and Czech Jiř Petrdlik respectively. According to statements made by many musicians, the conductors of those four concerts are possibly candidates for the position the principal conductor for season 2011/2012. But the audience must wait to see the resolution of the story, which will hopefully give a sense of vision and artistic direction to the Cairo Symphony Orchestra in its new season.

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