27 April - 3 May 2000
Issue No. 479
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Taking the time you take
Profile by David Blake
It's a man. Look at it, sprawled out there displaying itself on the platform. It's a woman, all curves and flowing lines, voluptuous and enticing. It's neither, it's a hermaphrodite. When the Steinways put pressure on their creative genius to make the perfect piano, their resultant creature went far beyond their wildest dreams.
This piano was neither man nor woman, but drawing force from the musical genius of both sexes. By the time it arrived in the new millennium it had become a miraculous, alluring Frankenstein, a metaphysical monster outclassing all other instruments in the force and delicacy of its scope.
The piano embraces everything. By 2000, it is neither an instrument nor a symphony orchestra. It is a distillation of both. It is as capricious as a harlot. Try me -- I'm easy. And it will play a trash song or plumb the Blues. Mrs Everybody has her offspring taught the piano. It is so easy. And then let Brendel sit with it and bring forth Schubert's Wanderer Fantasia, and see the storm burst in fury -- or Pollini, like Wotan, can rip thunder out of it. Hail the Steinway, it has added another element to music -- uncertainty.
Before this instrument, strong men tremble. So a small Egyptian boy with physically handicapped hands sees it as a dream challenge. He thinks he was created to coax it to befriend. The concert grand, whose indifference drives players to the edge of breakdown. Wael Farouk is a fairy tale gone real. How come the piano speaks its secrets to him especially, of all comers?
Wael Farouk's father is a very frank person. Years ago, since the boy seemed to possess, besides musical ability, a strong, almost metallic resistance to social moves. He was a problem. "You can be what you wish, but your mother and I don't want you to become a social freak for whom people offer special pleading. The hands! You have to be judged apart from your hands." As Wael grew, he found the establishment regarded him with indifference, even dismay. His manner made them uneasy, and his talents suspect. He verged too far from the normal. Beauty and the beast? He's no beast, but by ordinary standards he's no beauty. And his manner can be chill and put-down to all comers, as he refuses to kiss the hand. So -- a difficult character? Not really, but wary, and he can be sharp-edged, in fact steely under fire.
Some young people know the world on all its faces -- Mozart did, so does Wael Farouk. He set himself ruthlessly hard hurdles to cross. One of them is a certain piece of music by Sergei Rakhmaninov. When this composer wrote his third concerto, the piece in question in D minor, op.30, the composer was one of the living gods of music -- tall, strong, with mythically mighty hands, and the longest stretch at the keyboard ever recorded. He made a rhinoceros-like piece of music which players used to say was the south face of Mount Everest, almost impossible to play. It takes a superman to get away with it alive. It stands before the player, awesome, forbidding and totally indifferent to all effort. And it is before this concerto that Wael Farouk developed the mountaineer madness. He had to scale it, foolhardy vanity naturally going for gold, or in this case conquering an ice barrier -- part of the fairy tale of Farouk.
Rakhmaninov's music in the third concerto has the assertive quality of anything which is better than nothing. It is this struggle we now enjoy in his music. It is majestic bullying, often cold, what they call dead-men's breakfast, the last gesture of a gone world. Whatever anyone thinks of Wael Farouk and his struggles, he is a mountaineer of force, born to struggle, so that there is about him a compelling quality of challenge. Whatever fears for his hide he feels, the society in which he chooses to work is a bed of thorns. And he cherishes peace, whatever that means, peace you will never find except in the performance of his chosen music. This is the ever-present anodyne with a power as endless as the spheres, outlasting anything but God. Since he and his fellow musicians feel the same about music, they are a special type of angel beyond human hurt, and call for our respect and love.
'Just listen to the results of the brain working in this boy. He has the mystery'
(above, with Selim Sahab)
Wael Farouk was born, or rather he seems to have occurred, in 1981. The event took place in Cairo. He was visiteur du soir. There was a mystery about him. He had tiny, sweet little hands, and never made a sound. But this all changed like a time race. The mother and father became aware that he had gifts, feelings which he made obvious; that any kind of music, especially Euro-classical, affected him profoundly. He would grow sad and weep at quite quiet sentimental stuff, brighten up at Bach and bounce at Mozart, which was play music to him. As he grew into childhood, which seems hardly to have existed for him, he made preferences obvious. He liked repeats, and to hear the same tunes at the same time, and would grizzle until he got them.
Kindergarten brought teachers and lessons -- he was good at everything -- and then came music classes. Hurdle one had been reached -- his hands. His mother and father were normal, everyday sort of people, but not after Wael had grown into what they called childhood. Then it became apparent they were dealing with something different -- something without a name. They tried teaching him strings -- no play; woodwind -- no blow. The piano was not found. He had discovered it , and that was that. The end of the struggle, or rather the beginning, had arrived. These nice people had a phenomenon on their hands and in their home background. He kind of took over things, people, events and the daily timetable. A small person, he had made a space around himself, a draft which unsettled and puzzled -- and he did not grow up as others, remaining small, compact and very strong. And with the hands? The hands were a subject unto themselves. Farouk's hands were strong but did not grow outwards or lengthwise, never flat or spread. Nice baby hands, but for Brahms -- no.
His parents stood by him and became the support of his life, lovely people ready for any sacrifice. He had an elder brother who understood little of Wael and went his own way. So in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza, his life entered its teenage period. The brother would say, "The same old problem -- music and no money." He had something, but it was nothing compared to the big business manipulators who scoop up all the news because musicians are paid badly. To the general public, the Vienna Philharmonic is a band of overpaid specialists, but try reading through the schedule of their work for a month and see what it means. They are all infants of the storm, and the first to get pay slashes when the big cry goes up, "We can't afford it, we have no money."
One of Wael Farouk's most active supporters through the years was maestro Selim Sahab, who first suggested, when he was about 10, that he try his fortune at the Conservatoire. But this institution said no. Hand problems were the cause. Other teachers said, "Try something else. The piano is not for you." But after three months' study, the Conservatoire took Farouk. He was given full entry marks and started working with Samir Aziz for four years. He played in church and took occasional concert bookings. And then in 1993 he began what were the most fruitful years of his early days. He was accepted by Professor Demidov from Moscow for three years, and stayed with him until 1996, when Demidov returned to Moscow. He left a fruitful flock behind him. Some of the pupils cracked up but struggled on. Wael Farouk took it as the professor said: "Keep cool. No one is indispensable."
Demidov had passed on to him many things: to survive the pianistic jungle, get off the machine, refresh, refuel and start again. Some teachers teach the notes, but he taught the music behind the notes. He found in Farouk's nature a manichean streak -- how to bring out the devil. So Farouk's Mozart is like no one else's. It has black humour, shadows and the magnetism of sunshine and elegance. This gives Farouk opportunities for elegiac stretches that open the doors to interested listeners who look for new approaches to the time-worn classics which in spite of pop and media mockery still retain their hold over a vast public.
Part of the new revolution to come as the century develops will be what happens to the classics. This was often in Demidov's mind. "The piano is wood, ivory and steel. How to evoke Debussy doing a Mediterranean Night Piece is part of the job of the human hand as it goes over the keys." Farouk has always felt a close association with the music of Rakhmaninov. Demidov knew about the boy's ambitions to play the third piano concerto. "No, Wael. Anything, but not that." And he made a gesture: the hands would not support it.
Hands. Farouk made a study of them in piano history. Chopin had very small hands; so did another giant, Hans von Bulow, for whom Tchaikovsky wrote the formidable B-flat minor concerto. Von Bulow later took it to the US on tour. He also toured America with the entire piano sonatas of Beethoven, playing them from memory. What kept these players going at their Herculean labours? Not the physical, certainly. Then the other: Farouk thinks he has it, and so later this year he expects to give the Rakhmaninov no. 3 at the Opera.
His previous concerts in Cairo reveal much. In 1995 he played the disturbingly mysterious Mozart Fantasia in D minor -- very special, difficult and seldom played. Then some Busoni, Scarlatti and Liszt. After Demidov left for Russia, he resumed lessons with Professor Edgar from Georgia.
He played Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor concerto, and in 1999, with Patrick Fournillier, the Saint-Saens concerto no. 5. The visiting maestro left for France singing the praises of a very special musical genius. Then a concert with another of Mozart's mystery pieces, along Fantasia, and ending the concert with Rakhmaninov's huge, disruptive B minor sonata. So his public showing has been of the extremes -- the contemplative and the Russian tumult. Are they his two sides? He is not a show-off at all, but his love of Rakhmaninov puts him in this area. Maybe he feels it is a display of bravado expected of him: to show his hands will be the ultimate test.
He need not worry.
The piano has more than sheer noise to offer, and it is here Farouk enjoys himself. He says people in a concert hall waiting to hear him are terrifying; but, after he has marched out resolutely to his seat, and then, in that moment of frisson when he puts his hands to the keys, there is a pause. The electric generators of the brain must be pitched to highest proficiency. Then he begins. It works: brain and fingers are one -- the pianist's ultimate possession, no smallest doubt, quantum action. He can glide seamlessly with the most beautiful velvet tones, richly based in depth, the surface glazed with Venetian-like hues and inaccessible mystique of light and chiaroscuro few pianists can call out of their fingertips. He can stroke the piano into sunset tones, so after the turmoils of Russia, what a Fauré player he could be.
Demidov said before he left for Russia, "Never mind all the physical handicap stories. Just listen to the results of the brain working in this boy. He has the mystery."
A kindly, warm, lovable demon. A philosophic banana with a tough skin and that unique perfume inside. Egyptian. Maybe that is his mystery.
Photos: Randa Shaath