A midwinter tour: Italian Orchestra Giovanile Erasmus in Egypt

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 14 Feb 2023

The Orchestra Giovanile Erasmus gave three concerts, in Luxor, Cairo and Alexandria, during their short tour in the country.

Orchestra Giovanile Erasmus in Gomhoreya Theatre, Cairo (Photos: Ahmed Hassan)
Orchestra Giovanile Erasmus in Gomhoreya Theatre, Cairo (Photos: Ahmed Hassan)


Between the end of January and the start of February, Egyptian audiences in three cities were treated to a unique event. The Orchestra Giovanile Erasmus gave three concerts, one after the other: inthe Luxor Temple on 30 January, at the Gomhoreya Theatre in Cairo on 1 February, and on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s grand stage on 2 February.

This is the first time the orchestra has toured in Egypt, gathering large audiences at each venue. Success was not only due to the size and capabilities of the orchestra but also the soloists, who added their own shine.

The Orchestra Giovanile Erasmus is an Italian ensemble consisting of young Erasmus students, who study music at a variety of conservatories or music centres in Italy. Founded in 2017 as an extension of the Erasmus Plus (Erasmus+), an organisation that has supported young people’s educational, professional and personal development for over 30 years now, the orchestra uses music as a metaphor for integrating of skills that go beyond geographic or cultural barriers. As part of its mobility programme, twice a year, the ensemble travels to a chosen country in Europe or beyond. Their visit to Egypt was additionally supported by the exchange programme between students of 15 universities in Sicily and the Egyptian students from Luxor, Cairo and Alexandria universities and conservatories.

When performing outside Italy, the orchestra always includes the host country’s music students in their concerts. This was the case with the concerts in Egypt, in which the evenings dubbed Italian Gala included 55 young musicians: 42 Italian and 13 Egyptian, instrumentalists and soloists: Radwa Sameh (concert master), Huda Abdel-Azim (1st flute), Marwa Hamed (1st trombone), Iman Sayed Ragab (cello), Nora Ammar (percussion), Diaa El-Lithi (cello leader), Mohamed Said (bassoon), Amr Atef (violin), Mohamed Sakr (violin), Moustafa El-Herazi (viola from Bibliotheca Alexandrina Youth Orchestra) and Marwan El-Korashi (double bass from the Academy of Arts), Moustafa Gamal (trumpet solo), Mariam Abouzahra (violin solo).


When the Italian Cultural Centre in Cairo began working on the events’ organisation, they contacted the Arabesque International company as the Egyptian partner in this endeavour. “The Italian Centre have approached me for two reasons: one as the founder and manager of Arabesque, and also to invite my daughter Mariam to perform in the concerts,” explains Ahmed Abouzahra who, apart from Arabesque, is a pianist and arts manager, coordinating multiple concerts across different countries and continents. Abouzahra’s 14-year-old daughter Mariam is among the brightest stars in violin playing. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Amira (16) - an acclaimed young violinist in her own right - Mariam’s portfolio already boasts concerts with the renowned international orchestras and in fabled concert halls across the globe.

In the concert, which included works by Arutiunan, Paganini, Cimarosa, Donizetti, Bizet, Puccini, Verdi, and Morricone, the orchestra was conducted by Elio Orciolo featuring soloists from each country. Egypt was represented by Moustafa Gamal (trumpet) performing Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A-Flat major, and Mariam Abouzahra (violin) playing the first movement (Allegro maestoso) from Niccolo Paganini’s Violin Concerto no.1 op. 6 in D major. Their Italian counterparts included tenor Samuele Di Leo singing “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and “Questa o quella per me pari sono” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Soprano Sara Semilia performed “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi. Both singers also performed an arrangement of Ennio Morricone’s The Mission Suite, in which special light was shed on oboe soloist Antonino Facella.

The concert was an interesting showcase of talent, whether soloists or orchestra. It was also a display of passion, with young musicians who are still developing eager to find their place in the world.

This applies to everyone, but I want to highlight the violinist of the evening, Mariam Abouzahra, who despite her tender age, has developed a musical mind that, alongside her technical skill, makes her performances astounding, placing her in the ranks of shining young stars. Mariam’s interpretation of the first movement from Violin Concerto no 1. by Paganini, a composer whose demands on violin are often judged extremely challenging, was impeccable. Often described as a “music revolutionary”, Paganini’s violin compositions fuse a high emotional charge with countless technical feats, such as extremely fast passages, double harmonics and left-hand pizzicatos which are found in abundance in the first concerto. In fact, some critics refer to this concerto as “devilish” or requiring “virtually impossible technique” embedded in the scordatura, a slight change in the tuning of a string instrument. Suffice to say the sheer large number of details is almost terrifying for any violin player.


Technicalities aside, it is important to underline the enormous mental processing power required of a performer, a musical maturity that usually cannot be attained by an artists in Mariam’s age. It is a pity that the colourful programme did not make room for the full concerto of which her performance of its first movement was a breathtaking sample. No wonder Mariam’s solo was rewarded with a standing ovation as she was asked to return to stage three times. As an encore, Mariam performed Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe’s sonata for solo violin, once again displaying virtuosity with emotions older than her years.

Born in 2008 to an Egyptian father and a Hungarian mother (both pianists) Mariam Abouzahra started to play the violin at the age of three. She studied with many renowned teachers including Dora Schwarzberg, whose violin class for highly gifted children at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna she joined at the age of ten. She made her debut with an orchestra in Germany at the age of six, playing the Violin Concerto in G major by E. Beriot. As a soloist, Mariam has performed since then with countless renowned international orchestras and appeared at numerous venues worldwide, such as the Lincoln Center in New York and Covent Garden in London, the Royal Opera House in Muscat, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow, the Cairo Opera House and the Budapest Palace of Arts, among dozens of others.

Her list of awards is no less impressive, starting with First Prize at the competition “Jugend musiziert” in Germany (2016), Prix d’excellence at the International Ilona Fehér Violin Competition in Hungary (2017), and Special prize in Hungary´s Classical Music Talent Show Virtuosos (2018), to name but a few. More recently she was awarded first  prize at the Music Competition of the Austrian Television ORF “Golden Note” and Silver Nutcracker at the International Television Contest for Young Musicians “Nutcracker” in Moscow. In November 2022 the Austrian Television ORF broadcast a documentary film about Mariam. Also in 2022 she was invited to participate at the prestigious Verbier Festival and Academy with Augustin Dumay, Guy Braunstein and Midori as an “artist of promise”.


It is not possible to enumerate all her recognitions, awards, collaborations and masterclasses in this article. In fact, Mariam also performs with her 16-year-old sister Amira, who has an equally impressive portfolio of achievements. Granddaughters of Egypt’s celebrated actor Abdelrahman Abouzahra take both the critics’ and the audience’s breath away wherever they perform. The Abouzahra sisters are also among the few young talents who are offered support by the Young Virtuosos Foundation.

A concert presenting Orchestra Giovanile Erasmus and Mariam Abouzahra, along with other talented soloists is definitely an event of importance for the Egyptian audience and the cultural scene at large. It testified to fantastic musical cooperation between two countries while showcasing the abilities of sparkling musicians. Though all three concerts were filled with large audiences, on the logistical and preparatory levels, the road to those achievements was not as easy as it should have been.


As Ahmed Abouzahra explains, shortly before the Luxor concert, he was contacted by the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate asking for an exorbitant sum of money to be paid for each foreign musician performing in Egypt. “We had all permissions from the Antiquities authorities etc in hand, so I directed the Syndicate to the Italian Embassy and the Italian Cultural Centre.” He continues to express his disappointment with the attitude of the syndicate, refusing to understand the setting of the whole project and the lack of support from the culture ministry.

“This is a young students concert, part of the exchange,” he argued – even the involvement of the Italian Embassy fell on deaf ears. All this eventually led to cancellation of the Luxor concert. And that is when Abouzahra took to Facebook to describe the situation. No wonder his post spread like wildfire. The concert was reinstated with no fees for the syndicate. Abouzahra also stresses that in Cairo there was the disappointment of the orchestra being given the Gomhoreya theatre (operating under the Cairo Opera House) since “the opera’s main hall was booked for a school event.”

There is no need to comment on procedural obstacles standing in the way of such valuable cultural events, and hitting the youngest generation of artists who are still passionate and on course for their creative formation. Fortunately, the three concerts took place against all odds and the unprecedented success that the orchestra and the soloists achieved while performing to full halls made it all worth it. Hopefully, should another such opportunity come to Egypt, the road to artistic success will be supported - not hampered - by official institutions whose role is to embrace unique music initiatives, not only for the sake of the performers but also for the sake of the Egyptian audience.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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