On improvisation in music: When Mendelssohn gets an Arabic touch

Ati Metwaly, Saturday 31 May 2014

On 23 May, a unique flavour added to Mendelssohn's concerto – performed by the Egyptian Sinfonietta, Rami Khalifé and Mohamed Sharara – provokes reflections on how improvisation can revalidate music universality

Mohamed Sharara and Rami Khalifé
Violinist Mohamed Sharara and pianist Rami Khalifé perform with the Egyptian Sinfonietta, 23 May, Cairo Opera House (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Imagine Felix, a young man in his 14th spring. He is sitting at his desk, some time in 1823, adding double bar to his Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings.

As an adolescent, he already has his compositions performed by private chamber formations and admired by Berlin’s intellectual elite. An ideal setting for a genius yet to be known as the epitome of the Europe’s musical Romanticism: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Over 190 years pass and something really unexpected happens. All of a sudden, Arabic music accents sneak into the Concerto’s score. Taken by the splendid creative experimentations, listeners smile as they hear the tune.

From 1823 Berlin to 2014 Cairo: as we move in time and space, Mendelssohn’s music moves with us. With Rami Khalifé on piano and Mohamed Sharara on violin, accompanied by the Egyptian Sinfonietta conducted by Ahmed Al-Saedi, nothing seems usual at the Cairo Opera House at first.

The evening of 23 May also included one of El-Saedi’s most remarkable works, Passacaglia for Strings, along with – in the second half – Suite no. 3 for Strings by Respighi and Concerto for Strings by Nino Rota. But it is the Felix concerto performed by Khalife and Sharara that gives the evening its peculiar flavour.

Here is the thing: Rami Khalifé is no ordinary musician. While some traditional minds might call him untamed, Khalife continuously needs to break through the norms and challenge the walls we voluntarily erect around our cultural spaces, turning them into prisons. The international renown of this French-Lebanese composer and pianist can only testify to the success of his incessant experimentation and exploration through musical genres, tastes and cultures, though. Born to a family of musicians, a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music and engaged in many musical projects, Khalifé rises above music as it is and toys with its many genres. None can domesticate his spirit.

Khalifé does not simply perform a concerto by Mendelssohn. He rather invites the violinist and the Sinfonietta to join him in playing together with Felix, a connection he develops with each composer and a procedure he implements in his own and others’ compositions.

In my conversation with Khalifé, I discover how the Arabic tune made its way into the composition. It was in the last moment that he suggested to Sharara that he should do something different, to improvise the first movement’s cadenza on the Arabic melody.

The cadenza emerges from the piece effortlessly, as if it has belonged to the concerto since Felix’s day in Berlin. And with the same fluency it merges back into the composition, allowing Al-Saedi’s baton to speak through the orchestra. It is the perfect unity between the composer and Khalifé that emphasises the power of music and art in general, allowing us to rediscover qualities that are not confined by time, place or culture.

At the theoretical level, the orient-scented cadenza is fully justified. Historically, during the times of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, cadenzas were improvised by the musician; and bringing back such a practise today can only reassure us that music is revalidating itself and emphasising its own universality.

“Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings contains a lot of Mozartian elements and it is in that era that the cadenzas were usually improvised. At the same time since we are performing this work in Cairo, the Arabic scent of the cadenza allows the composition to be immersed in this specific geographical location,” Khalifé explains.

And musical improvisation is not as easy as it seems. Many professional, classically trained musicians find it difficult to go beyond the academic rules; if the score is not in front of them, they feel desert stranded. As such many find themselves confined within forms and scores, pressured by music history and learned etiquette – all of which leave little room for improvisation.

Khalifé’s process is exactly the opposite of this or any form of confinement. He feels blessed having both the ability to navigate within what’s written and the will to embark on endless improvisations that are nevertheless always characterised by a clearly defined target. They transport the audience to a particular idea and a specific culmination, noticeable in a large body of his musical endeavours.

A free bird, as he describes himself, he toys with his own compositions as well as challenging the many other composers as a performer, not sparing the magnificos of classical music. “I have this continuous urge to set free,” he reasserts. It seems even with this concerto he could have done more yet “when you are in a situation that you play with another soloist and have only a few rehearsals, it is difficult to deepen the ideas.”

There is a tendency within the younger generation of musicians to explore improvisation in all genres. Khalife points to Hassan Moataz, the Egyptian cellist, as an example.

“If classical music stays the way it is, at one point it’s going to die. We need to renew it continuously and inject a new feeling into it, give it youth. On the other hand, the composers were always borrowing from the popular music. Look at Haydn or Bartok. Stravinsky was borrowing from jazz, Rachmaninov was impressed by Gershwin’s Concerto for Piano... Music is universal. Now that we live in a globalised world, everything seems to melt together, we take from each other, we exchange information fast, we become more flexible. This all gives back to music.”

Khalifé continues to perform classical music, though while doing so he usually challenges the composer. He is also actively involved in other artistic projects, among them the trio Aufgang, which performed profusely in Europe last year. Initially inspired by classical music, Aufgang mixes many genres: rock, classical, jazz, techno, electronic. It  attracts a range of crowds. In those performances Khalifé uses synthesisers on the piano: distortions, reverbs and delays that generate his own creative combinations.

“Piano has this image of a stiff instrument, often attached to classical music. It is my goal and duty to modernise this image,” Khalifé comments.

Currently Aufgang is working on new compositions, and the release of its new album. Yet in addition to all this, Khalifé hasn’t given up on the family collaboration. He performs with his father, the renowned composer, singer and oud player Marcel Khalifé, and his brother Bashar Khalifé.

Check photo gallery from the concert here

This article was originaly published in Al Ahram Weekly

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