It is hardly possible to review the whole year, considering the richness and variety in the scope of musical activities, and how much their content and target varies. Their sheer number made it practically impossible for even the most fanatical music lovers to attend everything. Hence the subjectivity of my own account, restricted as it must be to what I managed to attend.
The Chopin Craze
The bicentenary celebrations of Chopin’s echoed through the whole year, with Egypt reflecting Europe by offering a good many concerts in which almost every artist and music formation offered some tribute to Chopin. Ramzi Yassa, the internationally renowned Egyptian pianist, gave Chopin recital at the Ewart Memorial Hall (American University in Cairo) in February. He played Chopin once again at the Cairo Opera House in April. On 1 March, Chopin’s actual birthday, Mohamed Abdel Fattah (cello), Dina Iskander (soprano), Iman Samy and Elena Dzamashvili (piano) celebrated in the Cairo Opera House Small Hall.
Other formations, such as the Egyptian Philharmonic Society, included Chopin in a few of their concerts. Yet no doubt the biggest event was the one organised in collaboration with the Embassy of the Republic of Poland, which took place in September at the Pyramids. The concert included mainly artists from Poland, with Dina Iskander being the only Egyptian singer, singing in Polish.
The international Chopin craze (which recalled the Mozart frenzy that swept Europe in 2006 on Mozart’s 250thbirthday) almost over-shadowed other important anniversaries: Pergolesi’s tercentenary, Schumann’s bicentenary, and Barber’s centenary. But fortunately several artists remembered Schumann, with the soprano Nevine Allouba giving a Schumann song recital at the Malak Gabr Arts Theatre, AUC New Cairo Campus in February; Dina Iskander, Dzamashvili and Hassan Sharara on the violin, commemorated the composer in November in the Ewart Memorial Hall, while Ruya Taner, who is widely-acknowledged as one of the leading pianists in Turkey, included Schumann in her recital at the Prince Mohamed Ali palace, and the Egyptian Philharmonic Society remembered him on several occasions. The Egyptian Philharmonic Society, conducted by Ahmed El Saedi, included Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater in their Easter Concert. Let us hope the bicentenary of Franz Liszt is celebrated likewise in 2011.
Several events in 2010 deserve special mention: The Solisti Veneti Orchestra, one of Italy’s first-rate orchestras, captivated Egyptian audiences in February. In May, we attended the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sylvian Cambreling, with Thomas Zehetmair shocking, masterful performance of Bartók's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 2. Beijing Friendship Dance Company’s Dream of the Red Chamber will not be matched any time soon.
Egyptian artists also provided their share of memorable events: in February, Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem (German Requiem) conducted by Nayer Nagui with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and A Cappella Choir; in the same month the Nordic Gala with the Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nader Abbassi, soloists Stefanos Thomopoulos (piano), Mona Rafla (soprano), Jolie Faizy (mezzo-soprano) performing works by Carl Nielsen, Grieg, Stenhammar and Sibelius.
May left us with an unforgettable Haydn’s Symphony no. 104 "London" conducted by Hisham Gabr at the Prince Mohamed Ali Palace (in September, Gabr was officially contracted as a conductor of the Cairo Opera House). June saw a remarkable performance of the opera L'elisir d'amore by Donizetti with the Cairo Opera Company and the guest soloists. Let me salute to two ladies who performed in June: Nazrin Rachidova in Brahms Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and Magda Emara in Rachmaninoff’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 2. Amr Abulnaga playing Camille Saint-Saens’ Morceau de concert for French Horn and Orchestra Op. 94 in December, proved amazing in December.
In the span of the whole year, one of the most active soloists was Ines Abdel Daim (flautist) who gave many recitals, as well as performing solo with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra on several occasions. And from the world of ballet, July revisited Zorba to the music by Mikis Theodorakis; it was a chance to admire the skill and spirit of the perfectly-cast, Hany Hassan in the main role.
A special hand should go to the “stars of the season”, due to their very young age: the Suzuki-method violin students of Osman El Mahdy, who gave their end-of-the-year concert at the Alexandria Opera House (Sayed Darwish Theater) in July.
October brought the most significant initiatives in the field. One was the HD live transmissions of the Metropolitan Opera, which marked the Cairo Opera House joining an international network of theatres, broadcasting live from the Metropolitan Opera and thus giving an unprecedented experience to opera lovers worldwide.
El Sakia String Orchestra, a new formation founded and conducted by Mohamed Saad Basha, was launched in October, under the umbrella of El Sawy Culturewheel (El Sakia), a centre that has proved popular with the young. The choice of El Sakia is a crucial step in introducing classical music to a wider audience. The orchestra gives an average of one concert per month (with two Christmas concerts in December).
There were also two concerts in the frame of “the Grand Opening of the Children's Music Puzzle Project” which were – as the title suggests – the opening of a much bigger project, initiated by Ahmed Abou-Zahra, as part of the National Musical Project for Children, under the patronage of H.E. Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak. The project aims to restore music education to Egyptian schools. The launch of the project was celebrated by two concerts tailored especially for children, with the Orchestra Colonne France, conducted by Laurent Petitgirard. The concerts included The Sorcerer's Apprentice to music by Dukas, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals, Fantasy for Two Pianos and Orchestra and children songsperformed by the “Heliopolis Children's Chorus”. We will keep our fingers crossed for the Ahmed Abou-Zahra project, waiting for the much anticipated revival of musical education in Egypt.
Last but not least were the steps taken by Marcello Mottadelli, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra Principal Conductor, in his third consecutive season. For two and a half years, Mottadelli has added little to the orchestra at the musical level, achieving no major successes. The transformation is rather in his attire. In previous years, the conductor insisted on wearing a black turtleneck when conducting the orchestra dressed in classical attire. With the beginning of 2010, Mottadelli shifted to a black suit and during one of his December concerts he wore a classical tuxedo. For opera regulars this is an event worth noting.
On a lighter note
Throughout the year, the Cairo Opera House presented a range of interesting performances not strictly speaking in the classical mould. Born in Mozambique to a Portugese father and a mother partially of black descent, Mariza, the queen of Fado, was the star of January. Mariza's charismatic performance exuded artistic intelligence, dedication and discipline. Likewise Bocelli’s performance at the Giza Pyramids in September was a great success. October’s Fire of Anatolia was a show presenting the art of dance in a state of near perfection.
Those performances were strongly advertised and understandably attracted a large audience of Egyptians, who otherwise rarely visit the concert halls. A rather more specific audience came to the April performance of Salvatore Adamo, on the other hand. This Belgian-Italian singer and songwriter who became a household name in the 1960s, still holds his popularity among an older generation of Egyptians driven by nostalgia and not always willing to notice their stars’ fading abilities.
Many shows in 2010 were of great artistic value. In some, however, the music was too weak or insignificant to make up for the drawbacks in the production. I remember the September opera The Marriage of Figaro, whose basic problem was in the mis-en-scene. The director’s absence toppled the opera base at its base and sacrificed many elements of the performance starting with the singers. It was a great disappointment, especially since the opera was performed in Arabic and was therefore accessible to a wider audience. Hopefully Mozart’s Magic Flute in Arabic, scheduled for January 2011 in Alexandria, will have a restorative effect on this kind of opera.
But let me end with the two biggest fiascos of 2010. Tut Ankh Amon -- The Musical and The Rat Pack tribute show. Both betrayed a mistaken understanding of the Egyptian viewer, undermining the expectations and tastes of the audience. Catchy Western music cannot cover up artistic failure.
Tut Ankh Amon -- The Musical waspresented in October, by an Austrian group. In spite of a handful of good elements in the production, the choice of music and the way in which historical events were mixed and matched confusingly in a story that was supposed to be historically based, were appalling.
The Rat Pack tribute, ineffectively recreating the music of the legendary Rat Pack in December, was a second-class, low-quality presentation of its creators’ aspirations. The Rat Pack reminded me of Take the Floor, performed in Egypt by the end of 2009 which reflected in big parts – yet without mentioning this to the audience – “Heat the Floor”, a Broadway production which incorporates several ballroom numbers but presents them to higher artistic standards.
photos by Sherif Sonbol
Suzuki end-of-the-year concert, photo by Emad S B Saweeres AND Dream of the Red Chamber, photo courtesy: Wu Promotion