Egyptian and Heroic inspirations with Cairo Symphony Orchestra

Nihad Allam, Monday 7 Oct 2013

Cairo Symphony Orchestra gave an inspiring concert on Saturday 5 October, conducted by Hisham Gabr and joined by guest pianist Marouan Benabdallah, featuring works by Omar Khairat, Saint-Saëns and Beethoven

Hisham Gabr and Marouan Benabdalla
Conductor Hisham Gabr (left) and pianist Marouan Benabdalla, with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

On Saturday 5 October, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra opened its concert with the main score from Execution of the Dead by Egyptian composer Omar Khairat (born 1948). The film is based on the true story of an Egyptian secret agent who risks his life for his country.

The piece began with an imposing tune, vigorously blown by the brass instruments, expressing the tragic side of the story. Then, the tune was passed to the orchestra. The mood softened and gracefully underwent changes through variations on different instruments, including oud and piano.

Khairat’s unique style, influenced by eastern, western classical, jazz and pop music is always an immense success. It was warmly received by the audience.

His piece was played instead of Ammar El-Sharei’s (1948-2012) Overture to Raafat El-Haggan, listed in the programme, in a last minute change due to "technical difficulties."

The replacement was suitable, as both Khairat and El-Sharei are beloved musical icons in Egypt. Moreover, the two pieces have similar subjects as the Overture relates to the famous TV series recounting the epic story of the Egyptian secret agent Refaat El-Gammal (1927-1996).

The next treat of the night was Camille Saint–Saëns’ (1835-1921) piano concerto no. 5 in F major known as L’Egyptien (the Egyptian), featuring the remarkable Moroccan pianist Marouan Benabdallah in his first visit to Egypt.

Benabdallah is his country's leading representative on international concert stages. He has performed with many renowned orchestras and conductors and is acclaimed worldwide. His performances are described as being marked by “spontaneity” and “natural playing.”

French Romantic composer Saint-Saëns wrote his fifth piano concerto during a journey to Luxor, and in the second movement he used a Nubian love song the boatmen were singing while sailing on the Nile, which explains the nickname L’Egyptien. Saint-Saëns said the concerto represented a sea voyage.

The concerto is technically very challenging, for Saint-Saëns, who was a great virtuoso, wrote it to play himself in the celebration of 50 years sine his debut at the famous “Salle Pleyel” in Paris.

From the first bars, the audience was captivated by the warmth of the music. Benabdallah played with vitality, technical brilliance, and fluidity, running up and down the keyboard suggesting the movement of waves.

The second movement contained subtle and ethereal melodies like the gentle sliding of boats on the water. While the third movement was extremely vivacious, displaying Benabdallah’s virtuosity.

The orchestra was interacting perfectly with the piano during the whole concerto.

In the second part of the evening, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s (1770-1827) symphony no. 3 in E flat Major, “Eroica” (Italian for Heroic) which is deemed the most influential work standing at the threshold of Romanticism.

Beethoven withdrew his original dedication of this composition to Napoleon Bonaparte when the latter declared himself Emperor. At first the symphony bore the subtitle, 
"per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo" (to celebrate the memory of a great man) which Beethoven removed later on. Beethoven praised the values of the French Revolution and Enlightenment ideas. His beliefs are reflected in his compositions. The Eroica was a revolution at the time and began a new era in history of music.

Beethoven observed the Classical Symphony form established by Mozart and Haydn. However, his innovations were various and striking: filled with expressions of deep emotions, Eroica marks the shift to the Romanticism.

According to Wagner, the Eroica explored the four phases of heroism: action, tragedy, serenity and love. Rendering them properly is among the challenges of performing the composition. 

Hisham Gabr, conductor of the evening, gave a fine interpretation with a remarkable depth of expression. One could feel the sheer will and heroic struggle, the grief and solemnity of death, the overcoming and the serenity beyond, and finally the glorious joy ending the symphony.  The tempo was carefully undertaken, especially during the Marche Funèbre (second movement, Adagio).

Even when the Eroica  ended, its impressive aura of uplifting strength and beauty continued.

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