A Czech breeze: The Prague Chamber Orchestra in Egypt

Nihad Allam, Sunday 4 Nov 2012

Conducted by Ahmed El-Saedi, and with the soloist Laura Mikkola on piano, the Prague Chamber Orchestra gave it's first two concerts in Egypt on 1 and 2 November

Prague Chamber Orchestra

On Thursday, 1 November in Cairo and 2 November in Alexandria, the Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ahmed El-Saedi, gave mesmerising concerts; walking the listeners through compositions by Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofiev and Dvorak.

Founded in 1951, the world-class Prague Chamber Orchestra (POK) is unique for many reasons: its musicians’ high caliber and their distinctive poised and lyrical approach to music.

In addition, it is also the oldest and longest-running orchestra that does not have a conductor: each musician relates directly to the whole ensemble. However, sporadically, the POK cooperates with conductors, as was the case during its two concerts in Egypt.

On the first evening, held in Cairo on 1 November, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Cairo Opera House’s Main Hall, anticipating a delectable concert under the baton of an Egyptian conductor Ahmed El-Saedi, who was the principal conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (1993-2003) and is also a founder, principal conductor and artistic director of the Egyptian Philharmonic Society.

The concert began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni. Short, complex, beautiful… the overture is often qualified as sui generis, (one of a kind) ingeniously expressing many contrasting elements. Opening Andante con moto evokes the Commendatore’s ghost threatening the Don and the latter's fatal end. The orchestra stressed  the tragic side, rather than terror, before moving towards Allegro where the lighter side of the opera is exquisitely captured.

It is worth mentioning that this year opera Don Giovanni celebrates its 225th anniversary, as it premiered on 29 October 1787 in Prague, the very hometown of Prague Chamber Orchestra. Understandably this fact made this performance even more special.

The next piece was Ludwig van Beethoven’s much-loved Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, featuring the remarkable Finnish pianist, Laura Mikkola.

Although the vigorous first movement of the concerto, Allegro con brio, would better suit a larger orchestra to fully express its wondrous and majestic power, the spirit was there, captivating the audience. The ethereal second movement, Adagio, was rendered with high sensitivity, including exquisite descending arpeggios by Mikkola, whose skill and finesse were remarkable throughout the whole concerto. Meanwhile, El-Saedi led a delicate balance between the orchestra and the piano. The feisty Allegro, warmly played, concluded the concerto in a euphoric atmosphere.

After the intermission, the orchestra resumed enthralling the audience, first with Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) Symphony no.1 in D major, called "Classical Symphony."

One of the greatest composer of the 20th century, Prokofiev was also regarded as the "enfant terrible" of modern music. Yet, let's not forget that we also owe him some remarkable lyrical lines.

After a thorough study of Haydn’s technique, fascinated by the structure of the classical symphony, the Russian composer decided to write a symphony in Haydn’s style, while remaining true to his own modern expression and style.

The first movement, a vivacious Allegro, is in sonata form with dissonant harmonies and unusual key modulations. The second movement is a short graceful Larghetto; the third an energetic and witty Gavotte and the finale, Molto Vivace, is a swift humorous flight.

Prokofiev's Symphony no.1 is technically and expressively very challenging for the musicians, specially the finale, requiring some unusual agility and precision from the violinists. The orchestra played it with effortless virtuosity and amazing brio. And admirably, the musicians kept their wonderful relaxed smile, adding more spirit to the music.  

As it is the Prague Chamber Orchestra tradition to include works by Czech composers in their concerts, Dvorak’s Czech Suite was to end the programme.

The suite is composed of five pieces based on folkloric Czech tunes and dances: the Preludium (Pastorale) recalling the Bohemia countryside, a graceful Polka, a moderate Sousedska or Menuetto, a lyrical Romanza and a quick Furiant.

Heartily performed, it was as delightful as a fresh breeze and El-Saedi was - unusually - swinging softly to the alluring melodies.

The mesmerised audience was indulged with an encore: the graceful Menuetto from Mozart’s symphony no. 35, Haffner. The POK large discography includes Mozart’s symphonies conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010).

This was Prague Chamber Orchestra’s (POK) first performance in Cairo. Hopefully Egypt will figure more frequently on their annual world-tour schedule.

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