Eleven years after his decade-long term with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Ahmed El-Saedi is returning as its principal conductor and music director. The appointment is an important step in the history of this 50-year-old orchestra.
The conductor and composer El-Saedi is among the best-known figures on Egypt’s classical music scene. His resume speaks for itself, boasting dozens of collaborations with the world-renowned orchestras, concerts in Egypt and in many international prestigious halls. El-Saedi started working with the CSO in 1991. In 1993, he was appointed principal conductor and music director for the first time, a position he held until 2003. Many feel these were the best years in the orchestra’s recent history.
Under El-Saedi’s baton, the CSO reached an international artistic standard. Its performances in Egypt were topped with critically acclaimed international tours. Apart from taking care of the orchestra’s musical development, El-Saedi made sure that the CSO was actively engaged with society at large, giving family concerts and taking the music to universities. In 2003, following El-Saedi’s divorce from the CSO, the maestro continued this journey by founding first the Egyptian Philharmonic Society and then its offspring, the Egyptian Sinfonietta.
After El-Saedi’s departure from the CSO in 2003, many foreign musicians left the country and their chairs were filled with young Egyptian talents who, though skilful, did not necessarily have experience in orchestral performance. Between 2003 and 2014, 11 consecutive seasons saw the arrival of six principal conductors, in order of their terms: Sergio Cardenas from Mexico, Christoph-Mathias Mueller from Switzerland, Steven Lloyd from the UK, Andreas Sporri from Switzerland, Marcello Mottadelli from Italy and Jiri Petrdlik from the Czech Republic, the latter visiting Egypt at best once a month.
The years following the January 2011 Revolution proved particularly challenging. No clear managerial structure or vision and shaky artistic priorities turned the orchestra into a proverbial house of cards.
Throughout those years, though he occasionally conducted the CSO, El-Saedi had no executive power over the orchestra. Today he returns filled with optimism and enthusiasm, but he is nevertheless concerned about the challenges that lie ahead of him. Our conversation soon reveals that he is determined to bring the CSO back to its days of glory. To this end, he has a very clear and well-structured vision, including a three-year plan to implement strategies that will benefit the orchestra and the public. The first sign of this process is already evident in the series of Beethoven Symphonies performed by the orchestra on consecutive Saturday evenings throughout September and on 11 October.
The Beethoven series is one of several that El-Saedi has crafted for the upcoming season. Depending on the composers and the eras they represent, he explains, going through consecutive stages of a music curriculum will help the orchestra master different styles. As this happens, El-Saedi is confident that the sound of CSO will also improve.
“Any orchestra needs to develop one homogeneous sound. There has to be one strong voice coming from all the musicians. This is what the orchestra’s identity is all about,” he says, adding that reaching this sense of artistic identity requires a stable set of musicians working together over time. “The last several years saw a number of highs and lows. Despite an obvious decline in some artistic aspects of the Cairo Symphony, I can see that what we have today is still undeniably valuable.”
El-Saedi stresses the fact that, at its core, the CSO is a good orchestra. At the time of our conversation, one could already point to the season’s opening concert on Saturday 6 September, which included Symphonies No. 1 and 5 as the conductor’s quod erat demonstrandum, as tangible proof of his claims.
Though satisfied with these early results, El-Saedi points to areas that need to be addressed urgently: “We have a good base and good material to work on. However, some programming will require that we increase the number of musicians in the string section. Equally, there is a need for additional oboe players. To meet those demands I will hold regular auditions for musicians. Hopefully, soon we will be also able to contract additional foreign players. The whole equation might not be easy, but I have to operate with the elements at hand and make the best out of the situation.”
Alongside bolstering up the orchestra with new members, El-Saedi plans to launch the Orchestra Academy, a body that will bring young Egyptian musicians together to teach them orchestral performance. Understandably, such an academy will help shape musicians before they join the main CSO body.
Beethoven is the first composer in El-Saedi’s music curriculum. The season will also include Brahms symphonies, to be conducted by guest conductors. This year marks the 300th anniversary of the German composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, an influential composer of his era and the son of the Baroque master Johann Sebastian.
“Alongside the CSO, we will have a smaller formation, the Cairo Symphony Chamber Orchestra. It is this ensemble that will perform several works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach,” says El-Saedi. He added that throughout 2015, which marks the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius, the CSO will perform many works by this Finnish composer. The great concerto series sounds like yet another compelling proposition for the season. The Violin Concerto in D major and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major are among the highlights of the series.
The CSO programme for the 2014-2015 season has yet to be released, but the hints provided by El-Saedi sound promising. The conductor does not limit his attention to the revival of the CSO. Each programming element is also beneficial for building the symphony’s audience. Says El-Saedi, “The orchestra has to reach out to the society. It cannot be limited to Saturday concerts, which in large part attract music regulars. We will hold several lighter concerts, such as the one planned for the Saint Valentine’s Day. On the other hand, we are going to use tools intended to narrow the gap between classical music and potential new listeners.
“This will be done through the matinee concerts with programmes tailored to the whole family and especially accessible to the youngest listeners. Hopefully, soon we will also move towards universities and schools. On the other hand, the Damanhour Opera House, which until now was fully dedicated to Arabic music, will see the entry of classical music for the first time.” Damanhour will be treated to five classical concerts over the coming months.
As for international commitments, El-Saedi is already putting together plans for the CSO’s international tour, the details of which have yet to be revealed. Plans also include classical concerts by Arab composers, as well as workshops and competitions for young Arab conductors. El-Saedi remains confident of the orchestra’s capabilities and the audience’s keenness to attend upcoming events. However, his enthusiasm is tempered by his awareness of the logistical elements that need to be put in place.
“You cannot have an international orchestra without operating with internationally defined tools for success. While I have the full support of the opera’s top management, I still need to address issues such as marketing and fundraising. In this regard, not all executive bodies of the Cairo Opera are used to new ideas. There has to be a logical strategy behind the promotion of different events, as each activity demands specific mechanism of publi-city. It’s important not to forget that advertisements have to reach people. For instance, the flyers cannot be limited to the opera’s own walls, they have to be actually distributed. Revamping the orchestra’s website is another, equally important step.”
With such dynamic plans, El-Saedi will have his hands full. He says that in order to dedicate himself fully to the CSO, he will have to put on hold some of his other activities, including the Egyptian Philharmonic Society and the Egyptian Sinfonietta. At the same time, El-Saedi’s fame should help to attract new funding and interest for some of the CSO’s projects.
This interview was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly