Beyond Chopin

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 23 Aug 2022

Ati Metwaly sought out Egyptians in Poland

Egyptians in Poland
Egyptians in Poland

 

Shahd Magdy, Andrew Milad, Mahmoud El-Batran and Mostafa Hassan are the names of the young Egyptian pianists who won the seventh Chopin Piano Competition for Children and Youths (November 2021). They were awarded a one-week trip to Poland (7-13 August 2022), a cultural experience during which, alongside many other attractions, the pianists followed in Chopin’s footsteps. It was on this trip that I had the opportunity to spend some time with the young pianists and take a closer look at their impressive connection to music. Aged between 16 and 19, the four winners will definitely make their mark on the Egyptian music scene if they supplement their musical endeavours with studies.

The annual Chopin Piano Competition for Children and Youths is organised by the European Foundation for Education and Culture Zielona Góra in cooperation with Rahn Education Schulen Kairo, maestro Ahmed El Saedy and the Embassy of Poland in Cairo. The competition was launched in 2010 by Fawzy El-Shamy, the former dean of the Cairo Conservatory, through the Egyptian Youth Music Association and in collaboration with the Embassy of Poland in Cairo. The first round took place in 2010, but the 2011 round was cancelled due to political reasons. The competition returned in 2012 and was held annually until 2018, when it was suspended again until 2021.

The event is an opportunity for young Egyptian pianists to shine in four categories, each marking a specific age group. While compositions by Chopin form the bulk of the scores, contestants are also required to prepare works by other composers. Each year, the winners are offered a visit to Poland where they follow Chopin’s trail. This year, apart from visiting Warsaw and Zelazowa Wola, where the composer was born, the four winners were taken to northern Poland, where they visited the Tri-City: Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot. It is worth adding that it was the first time for the Egyptian Chopin competition to offer attractions located away from the capital, enriching the programme with components that gave the participants a broader view of Polish socio-cultural history.

The Chopin trail segment allowed the young pianists to be deeply acquainted with Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) and his everlasting his presence in Polish culture. Between 7 and 13 August, the programme featured a Chopin concert at the Royal Park in Warsaw, a walk through the city’s Old Town (where, among many historical attractions, musical benches play Chopin’s compositions), and a visit to the coffee shop where the composer is fabled to have spent time. The Old Town was also the site of their participation in the “city game,” during which they were given a map and cards with questions related to the composer and asked to complete numerous tasks while walking through the streets.

In Warsaw, the musicians also visited the Chopin Museum and the Chopin University of Music where they had the opportunity to meet with professors of the renowned institution. The Chopin trail wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to Zelazowa Wola, the small village where Chopin was born, located 46 km west of Warsaw. In Zelazowa Wola, the Egyptian pianists visited Chopin’s home where they also attended a short recital by a young Polish pianist.

It goes without saying that, whenever given a chance or encountering a piano, the young artists would stop to perform a few pieces from their own repertoire: Chopin, Debussy and other composers, as well as jazz works, a unique interest of Andrew Milad. Whether at the Chopin University of Music or the Zelazowa Wola’s restaurant, the four pianists did not shy awau from showcasing their skills.

Apart frpm the locations linked to the Polish composer, the musicians visited many historical and cultural spots. In Warsaw they toured the Uprising Museum, which presents a history of the major World War II operation by the Polish underground resistance to liberate Warsaw from German occupation in early August 1944, as well as the Copernicus Science Centre, considered a “paradise for science enthusiasts.”

The tour across northern Poland’s Tri-City – Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot – began with a three-day stay at Gdansk featuring a concert by the Three Tenors at the Hevelius Square, a visit to the Fort of Gradowa Mountain and the Amber Museum, and a short sailing trip between the cities. The Tri-City region is well known for its ports, fishing industry as well as amber, a native Polish gemstone whose fame dates back to ancient times. The stone was behind the founding of the Amber Road, an old trade route that connected the Baltic Sea with the Mediterranean. The trade route also introduced amber to Egypt as some of the ornaments found at the Tutankhamen’s tomb contain amber gems believed to have originated at the Baltic Sea shore.

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The rich programming of the visit prepared for the young pianists allowed them to discover Chopin’s country through a broad perspective. Though one week is very little time in which to absorb the historical and cultural aspects of Poland, the activity-packed days definitely added a lot of values to the young minds. As they were walking through the public squares, listening to Chopin’s music at a concert, on the streets or coming from the Old City’s benches, the theoretical and musical knowledge they had about the composer could only be enriched by the sense of his omnipresence in contemporary Polish culture. It is as if, for seven days, they had an opportunity to sit by the composer underh a willow tree, his favourite, which embraces his figure in the iconic bronze statue standing at the Royal Park.

The young musicians have a very close connection to Chopin’s music and the trip undeniably made it closer. “Chopin is truly unbelievable,” 19-year-old Mahmoud El Batran commented as he pondered over the Polish composer during one of his mornings at the hotel. “He was only six or seven years old when he began making the most beautiful compositions. It’s miraculous. Chopin learnt from previous composers, from Bach to Beethoven, and poured their values into his music.”

Andrew Milad, 17, immediately steps in to second El Batran’s opinion, adding, “As much as Chopin benefitted from his predecessors, he also added his own extremely unique creativity and perspective on music. His music is at times very complicated harmonically and technically, and his input allowed classical music to progress further. On the other hand, let’s not forget that Chopin’s music is also strongly influenced by his personal life, which as we know wasn’t always easy. It is all obvious in his compositions.”

Chopin also played an important role in 17-year-old Shahd Magdy’s personal musical development. “To be honest at first, I didn’t really like classical music and I didn’t feel it was that important in my life. It was through Chopin that I started approaching this music. I was guided by my piano teacher Sherif Salah at the Opera House’s Talents Development Centre. It was through Chopin that Dr Salah managed to remove the barrier that existed between me and Western classical compositions,” she says, adding that though she studied piano for ten years, it is only in the past four that she embarked on classical piano.

“I too began my classical music education with Chopin,” says Mostafa Hassan, 16, who has studied piano for three years. “There are a lot of stories and emotions in all of his compositions; he moves us from the darkest tunnels of sadness to the highest levels of joy. Debussy said, ‘Chopin is the greatest of all. For with the piano alone he discovered everything,’ and I believe this sentence captures his music perfectly.”

The four pianists are all still students, whether at secondary schools or universities. Though they have packed schedules, music remains one of the most important pillars of their daily routines. However, the character of their musical futures is not yet known as they all look at the choice of turning music into a full-time job with a dose of scepticism.

El-Batran, who studies piano under Sherif Salah at the Talents Development Centre as well as law at the university, is preparing for a performance with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra on 10 September (he will perform Mendelssohn concerto no.1): “I can’t say which direction life will take. For now, I hope to be able to enter as many piano competitions as possible, even if I don’t win – the experience is important.”

Magdy, who is about to begin law studies, too, points to the importance of maintaining the right balance between university and music. “Interestingly, each complements the other. I benefit a lot from music studies at school and vice versa. I only hope that I will not be forced to choose between my studies and music as I’d like to pursue both along parallel lines.”

For his part Andrew Milad, who is in his final year of secondary school, adds that “maintaining the balance between school and piano studies can be a challenge. I try to divide my time between the two things equally but I haven’t yet decided which of path will dominate my life.” Milad studies piano under Marcelle Matta at the Talents Development Centre, yet he is equally interested in jazz, a passion he developed three years ago. He already has a few performances with jazz ensembles to his name and is preparing for a concert at the upcoming Cairo Jazz Festival. “I am taking a gap year which will allow me to invest more time in music, continue performing and composing.” While looking forward to progress, Milad has yet to discover where the music will take him.

“We cannot predict what will happen in the future,” Mostafa Hassan comments. Guided by Noha Amer, Hassan is the only pianist in the group not attending the Talents Development Centre; he benefits from home private lessons. “I think that keeping music at the level of a hobby allows me to appreciate it more. I wouldn’t like it to turn into a job filled with deadlines, as then I might lose my passion for it. I don’t think I’d like to be a concert pianist, and for now music as a hobby suits me best.”

To many Western musicians, this lack of a concrete plan to turn music into a main source of income might sound surprising. However, taking into account that this kind of music is only followed by a tiny fraction of the Egyptian population, any young person would think twice before making it their life choice. The four musicians come from families unconnected to the Western classical music, and their encounter with it was mostly accidental. Today they have become classical music promoters, inviting their families and friends to listen to it.

“I hope that Western classical music can be listened to by a larger segment of the population. It would be great if instead of focusing on Hamo Bika or Hassan Shakoush, a tuk-tuk or a microbus driver would listen to Arabic classical music, jazz, or – yes, why not – Western composers such as Schubert, Beethoven or Chopin.” And while El Batran eagerly enumerates several cultural extremes, he is both serious and hopeful.

Milad who experiments with jazz and classical music, thinks that fusion is the best way to build bridges between musical cultures. “Mahraganat or shaabi music is created by Egyptians and it is a good thing. There is no such thing as ‘bad music’. However, the world of music is much bigger than just those singers and I’d encourage everyone to listen to many genres. Maybe going from mahraganat to Beethoven is a bit unrealistic though,” he comments, challenging the views of El Batran.

The latter replies by pointing to the “total lack of education” of many mahraganat musicians. While the two young men begin arguing about the validity of mahraganat, Shahd Magdy adds a few calming words: “I hope people can give the Western classical music a chance. Through my social media platforms, I try to show that it is beautiful music. On the other hand, it is through studying classical music that musicians can deepen their knowledge – technical skills and creative components – which they can then utilize in other musical genres that they perform.”

Those and many other interesting conversations were initiated by the young Egyptian pianists during their walks and visits to many cultural venues in Poland. Their dedication to music and an almost obsessive love of classical music and piano, as well as discussions that touch on composers and their works, prove very mature for such a tender age. Their boundless energy and passion was a joy to behold while their exchange of views was always interesting to listen to. Today, what is more, in the fast-paced age of technology and heavy financial demands, their pragmatic minds do not bet on music alone. There is one thing for sure, however: whether their futures turn music into a career path or not, musical values have already been deeply ingrained in those young minds. This in itself will change their outlook on life, redefining beauty and human sensitivity.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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