More for less
Amal Choucri Catta detects chaos amid the omissions
Fifth Arab Perspectives Music Festival, Main Hall and Small Hall, Cairo Opera House, 4 to 18 February
The first Arab Perspectives Festival -- held between 2 to 16 February, 2002 -- was intended to promote serious symphonic and chamber music composed by Egyptians and Arabs. Though its success, at the time, was not overwhelming it was a laudable endeavour that aimed to help local composers access an audience. The idea was not absolutely new: similar initiatives had been undertaken at Cairo's old Opera House where the programmes of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra often contained compositions by Egyptians. When the old opera house was destroyed by flames in 1971 symphonic concerts were relocated to the Gomhouria Theatre where Youssef El-Sisi's regular Friday-night concerts often included work by an Egyptian composer. That is how audiences gradually came to be acquainted with the music of Aziz El-Shawan, Sayed Awad, Abu-Bakr Khairat, Gamal Abdel-Rehim and Regeh Daoud, among others.
Following the inauguration of the new Opera House in 1988 Cairo Symphony concerts continued to be performed at the Gomhouria before being transferred to the Opera House, now under the direction of the Austrian composer-conductor Thomas Christian David, who was in turn succeeded by Ahmed El-Saedi in 1990. Youssef El-Sisi was more or less thanked for his efforts and relieved of his positions as head of the orchestra and director of the Opera's artistic department.
Musical policy gradually changed, though promoting local compositions on a regular basis remained a goal. It was under El-Saedi that the decision was made to extend the promotion of symphonic compositions to musicians across the Arab world, at which point the first Arab Perspectives Music Festival was held, showcasing works mostly by Egyptians. The second festival included 30 composers in ten concerts, seven of whom came from other Arab countries. The third festival introduced 27 composers in seven concerts, the fourth 24 composers in nine concerts.
This year the festival has become truly international, introducing 26 composers, including Huan Liu from China, Nile Guenter, Marc Sabat and Oliver Schneller from Germany and Todd Tarantino and Victor Adam from the US. The programme also incorporated a concert by the Musik der Jahrhunderte Stuttget dedicated to the theme of "Identity and creativity - global interplay".
With the inclusion of foreign composers the Arab Perspectives Festival has lost its original purpose. Instead of showcasing composers from the Arab world, any composer from any country can now be promoted and it would seem sensible to rename the event.
This year the festival introduced several new young conductors, including Tarek Mahran. Yasser El-Serafi, Hisham Gabr and Mohamed Hamdi. While Gamal Abdel-Rehim, Adel Afifi, Rageh Daoud, Kamel El-Rimali, Aziz El-Shawan, Tarek Ali Hassan, Mona Ghoneim and Patrick Bishay all appeared in the programme, as they had in earlier events, others, including Nader Abbassi, Ahmed El-Saedi and Sherif Moheiddin were for some reason excluded.
The fifth festival presented a mixed bag. Of the composers included many have limited their interest to folklore while others are barely embarked on their careers. Yet they have been accorded the same status as much more established musicians. And in this festival, as in the previous four, there was one glaring omission: the late Sayed Awad was once again excluded.
Awad spent many years in Jordan and founded the first Jordanian Chamber Orchestra. He is the author of several major compositions among which are symphonic poems, chamber music, works for violin and orchestra, the Yarmouk Symphony and the three-act opera The Death of Cleopatra, based on the epic poem by Ahmed Shawki.
Born in 1926, Sayed Awad began his musical career as a violinist with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra at the old opera house. After winning a scholarship to the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in Moscow he completed his studies with David Oystrach. In 1968 he obtained his PhD from Moscow and is the only Egyptian to have conducted many leading Russian orchestras.
Back in Egypt Awad founded the first children's orchestra and taught at Cairo Conservatoire, the Cinema Institute and at the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts. He reorganised the Cairo Symphony Orchestra at the old Opera House before being appointed professor of music at the University of Jordan. After his return to Cairo Awad organised the Talent Development Centre at the new Cairo Opera House and regularly conducted Cairo's symphonists and at the same time helped to form the Cairo Opera Orchestra. In February 1994 his three-act opera Death of Cleopatra was performed in concert form on the main stage of Cairo Opera with the symphony orchestra conducted by the composer. Excerpts from the opera, as well as the Yarmouk Symphony, were for long a staple of Cairo Symphony programmes. Yet since his death Awad seems to have sunk into undeserved obscurity.
The criteria for selecting those who are included in the Arab Perspectives Music Festival have always been unclear. And while this year's festival is likely to be hailed as a success it managed to attract an audience largely because entrance was free. To be truly successful it needs a clearer, more defined profile, and the obvious place to start is to be less chaotic and more consistent in programming.