Awtar Quartet: An enriching discovery in the Cairo opera's small hall

Ati Metwaly, Sunday 8 Dec 2013

Founded in 2012, Awtar Quartet showcased a captivating musicianship through their performance of Jazz Standards and Dvorak’s String Quartet 'American' on 27 November

Awtar Quartet
Awtar Quartet performing at the Cairo Opera House, 27 November 2013. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

In promoting its activities, the Cairo Opera depends on social media more than any other channel known to cultural institutions around the world. The many international operas and theatres race against each other in the way their programming, promotion of activities through flyers distributed across the city, mentions on national radio and TV, well updated and dynamic websites etc.

Surprisingly, the Cairo Opera House seems dedicated exclusively to its Facebook page and its poor website that does not even mention details for most of the events it presents. With flyers printed two or three days prior to the concert — if ever — and distributed on the Cairo Opera House grounds, this prestigious cultural institution keeps raising our eyebrows. In the midst of promotional problems, the larger events usually attract a larger audience.

But the Cairo Opera House is more than the Arab Music Festival, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra Saturday concerts, opera or ballet performances or a handful of artists who over the past years developed their own fan database...

The Small Hall of the Opera presents many remarkable gems among which many, unfortunately, pass unnoticed (Facebook advertising with musicians pleading for attention on social media prove insufficient to fill the 350 seats of the hall). Such is the destiny of many remarkable recitals, and the fate of the many lesser known though breathtaking ensembles... 

That was the case of the four musicians who on Wednesday 27 November took the Small Hall stage to perform Jazz Standards and Dvorak’s String Quartet No 12 in F Major Op 96, “American”.

Founded in December 2012, the Awtar Quartet consists of refined Egyptian musicians: Yasser Ghoneim on 1st violin, Khaled Saleh on 2nd violin, Essam Abdel-Hamid on viola and Mohamed Abdel-Fattah on cello. On their Facebook page, the quartet presents itself as “proficient in various musical styles, including classical, Arabic, easy listening, tango, jazz, film, waltz, pop and much more”. One of the aims of the ensemble is to offer their skills to Opera regulars. Their concert was attended by a small group of 30-40 listeners, among whom some were devoted friends and family members. What a sad example of a remarkable ensemble lost in the secrecy of the Opera’s promotional department.

Aside from all bitterness, the evening proved to be a noteworthy getaway from daily stress. The Awtar Quartet offered a much needed discharge with their elevating effect and an exceptional performance of the jazz standards while delivering, in the second half, a motivating experience to the classical music listeners. Though formed quite recently, the ensemble already enjoys a high degree of cohesion, a skill the musicians developed over many years of playing in the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. At the same time, without falling into the trap of egotistic emphasis on individual skills, each of the musicians illustrates the well developed ability to phrase his parts, making sure it stands out while remaining fused within the whole piece. 

And there were skills galore... The sound of Ghoneim’s violin is mass-free and warm without being mellow. It underscored the complexity of undertones in jazz compositions and rendered the bright passages of Dvorak’s quartet with gratifying clarity. This gifted and resourceful violinist, currently the second violin leader at the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, was an interesting discovery of the evening and deserves to be followed in upcoming performances. 

Richard Roger’s classical song Blue Moon, arranged for the strings by Matt Turner, was among the solo highlights of Ghoneim. In Morgan Lewis’s How High the Moon, arranged by Thom Sharp, Ghoneim efficiently shared the main theme of this light jazz standard with Saleh on second violin, while violist Abdel-Hamid gave the tune a balmy coating. It was in a jazzed-up Bossa Nova, Luiz Bonfa’s A Day in the Life of A Fool (arranged by Bert Ligon) that Abdel-Hamid demonstrated his darker focussed sound. 

Of course, it would not be fair to omit the contribution of Abdel-Fattah, whose cello provided important lining and drew out the required edges in the many compositions. Right before the end of the first half of the concert, the Awtar Quartet performed yet another well known composition: Buck Rams’s biggest hit Only You, arranged for strings by Tatiana Saleh. Countless singers have given their rendition of this song; yet when coming from the string quartet, with the main theme bouncing between the first and the second violin, the tune’s ability to capture the listeners’ hearts, time and again, was particularly obvious.

It was the second half of the evening that transported the audience from jazz to the String Quartet No 12 in F major Op 96 by one of the most prolific chamber music composers of the 19th century, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). Already in his 50s, Dvorak composed this quartet in less than a month, during hissummer holidays in Spillville, Iowa (home to a Czech community in the USA) while serving as the director of the newly founded National Conservatory of Music in New York; hence the composition is dubbed “American”.

The bright pizzicatos and tremolos of the opening movement (Allegro ma non troppo) create a lovely ambiance, well captured and delivered by the Awtar Quartet, before moving onto the concealed in gold soft second movement (Lento) in which lines played by the second violin and viola are often associated with African America and/or Native American spiritual music. The sound of brightness and birds singing in the Iowa countryside returns in the third movement’s rustic Scherzo (Molto Vivace), before the fourth movement’s Finale: Vivace ma non Troppo closes the composition with its enveloping rhythmic outline.

The jazz tunes that the Awtar Quartet performed in the first half of the concert served as good preparation for an equally charming yet more profound, complex and exquisite composition from the Western classical music repertoire. Likewise the enthusiasm of playing that the four musicians projected in the first half was intelligently transported into Dvorak’s quartet and topped with their high standard of musicality.

The Awtar Quartet wears a lot of colours, each of its members is characterised by grace and dedication to the craft. What is particularly interesting is the musician’s capacity to embrace different music genres with equal ardour while preserving their artistic honesty about each composition’s values and artistic positioning.

Let’s just hope the day will come when the Cairo Opera will not only acknowlege but also support with proper promotion those and many other talented musicians, concealed within the Small Hall’s walls.


This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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