'I have a mission to accomplish': Conductor Nayer Nagui puts music above all else

May Sélim, Wednesday 11 Jan 2023

Artistic director of the Cairo Opera Orchestra, principal conductor of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra, and founder of the Cairo Celebration Choir (CCC) Nayer Nagui likes to transcend the boundaries between classical music and pop while revisiting Arab masterpieces.

Nayer Nagui


One of the most recent concerts under Nagui’s baton took place last month at the Tahrir Cultural Centre. The Christmas concert featured the CCC, which he founded in 2000.

Nagui is preparing for a new concert performing the works of composer Ragueh Daoud. The concert is taking place on 20 January at the great hall of the Cairo Opera House. He also has a few conducting commitments with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra.

The maestro obviously has his hands full – he is a composer, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Orchestra, principal conductor of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra and is in charge of the Cairo Celebration Choir – yet he tries to make sure that the administrative tasks do not supplant his mission as an artist.

“The choir has just closed the Christmas season and we will return in June with The Light of Life by British composer Edward Elgar, to be performed at the Basilica Church of Heliopolis,” Nagui comments, adding that he is also planning to record the concerts professionally.

“I have already started recording the evenings of the Cairo Opera Orchestra. I would just post an excerpt from the concert on social networks to give an idea of what we are doing,” he says.

Since its founding in 2000, the CCC would usually meet in September to prepare for the Christmas concert. But as the concerts began to multiply, and Nagui started introducing a wider repertoire, the formation works all year round. Its members, who Nagui refers to as “professional amateurs”, are now capable of performing increasingly challenging works by Gabriel Fauré and Mozart, but also classical Arabic songs rearranged in a contemporary style.

Nagui draws from the songs and operettas of the legendary Alexandrian composer Sayed Darwish and from Egyptian folklore, revisiting them by giving them a contemporary flavour.

The members of the choir are all amateurs in essence, but they have followed musical training to deepen their knowledge. 

“I started by teaching them myself, now it is done with the help of my assistants. The members of the choir do not receive any remuneration, on the contrary, they pay contributions which help us to self-finance our activities, topped with the income from the concerts. This is how we manage to pay the professional musicians and soloists who accompany us during a variety of concerts,” says Nagui, proud of the way his ensemble, which today has 120 members, operates.

The maestro tries to adopt similar methods when managing the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra, which operates under the Alexandria Library and of which he has been the principal conductor since 2019. 

“Music is part of the activities of the Library, a huge cultural institution, and its art centre. It is not like the Cairo Opera, which specializes in music and produces more than 700 concerts in six theatres throughout the year. But I want to have a role in promoting music in the port city, I am trying to attract a wider audience," Nagiu says.

"Last year, I managed to present Bizet's opera Carmen. It was not just about a performance, but there was an educational part that involved the Goethe Institute. The main characters were sung by professional opera singers, while the secondary roles were given to the choir members and singing students. The concert was sold out for two days in a row."

Nagui, a pianist and classical composer, has always had an innate love for music.

“My family was in the choir of the Evangelical Church of Al-Attarine in Alexandria. Singing in choir was therefore an old family practice. In my church, the choir performs classical masterpieces as well as other simpler works from a pop and even jazz repertoire. This is why I have always moved from one genre to another easily,” Nagui comments, adding, however, that “unfortunately, I do not have the same knowledge in Arabic music. I didn't really listen to it much! Recently, I began to rediscover this music.”

Nagui’s multilayered and still growing relationship with Arabic composers and their music is represented in his cooperation with Omar Khairat and other renowned musicians, as well as in concerts featuring film music with singers like Medhat Saleh and Reham Abdel-Hakim.

Even before studying music, Nagui played the piano at his grandmother's house. Later, he joined the Alexandria Conservatory to study classical music and piano, but at the same time he played pop with the Good News, an Egyptian Christian Catholic Praise and Worship team. He also met his future wife, soprano Dina Eskander, in this team. Today, the couple has two sons. 

“Initially, Dina mainly took care of the children. I didn't have much time to share in household responsibilities. It was exhausting for her! Today, my eldest son is continuing his studies in Germany and the youngest is completing his school studies,” he clarifies.

After graduating from the Alexandria Conservatory, Nagui decided to move to Cairo to improve his classical piano playing.

“At the time, the Talent Development Center was a good way to access the best music teachers: experts from Russia, renowned Egyptians. Its director, Sayed Awad, once told me: You have to master the musical accompaniment. You are a soloist, you must perform twice a year at most, one concert as a soloist and one with the orchestra. The musical accompaniment will give you the chance to earn a better living.”

Nagui then accompanied several opera singers. He attended singing lessons with Violette Maqqar and Sobhi Bedair and followed ballet rehearsals supervised by Erminia Kamel. All this allowed him to better immerse himself in the performing arts. 

He then realized that the piano was no longer enough for him and that he wanted to lead an orchestra and compose his own music. 

This decision pushed him to pursue studies in Paris to become a conductor. “At one point, I thought about moving to France, but in the end, I was happy to be able to return to Cairo after graduating. The good Lord made things happen this way. I really think I have a mission to accomplish here.”

After a few decades of hard work, Nagui accomplishes his mission while sharing his knowledge and expertise with hundreds of musicians and music aficionados.

The upcoming concert conducted by Nagui will take place on 20 January at the Cairo Opera House. The evening will feature works by Rageh Daoud.

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