Ecstasy at the Palace
Ati Metwaly goes royal
The Steinway piano waits in a 100-year old Islamic Golden Hall with Quranic and poetic golden inscriptions on the walls and ceiling that revive the art of Islamic arts. The beauty of the architecture is inescapable while the next virtuoso walks up to the Steinway to perform works by the most notable classical composers. Attending a concert in the Prince Mohamed Ali Palace Golden Hall in Manial is an extraordinary experience. Here, historical and architectural magnificence combines with a multiplicity of cultures to transport the audience into a neutral musical space.
Since 2002, the International Music Centre, with help from the Culture Development Fund, has given a variety of concerts. Ramzi Yassa, the internationally renowned Egyptian pianist is its Artistic Director and the dynamo driving events at the Palace. Together with Yassa, Tarek Sharara (Artistic Advisor), Nevine El Kilany (General Coordinator) and Mohamed Saleh (Artistic Supervisor) make up the team responsible for its success.
"Meeting the Masters at Carnegie Hall or Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is a privilege. To witness their performance at Manasterly is a unique experience," Yassa comments in the Centre's seasonal programme. And indeed, each concert is not only an opportunity to indulge in music played by excellent musicians but a chance to listen to them in unusual and deeply attractive surroundings. I remember the 2007 Gala Concert marking the Centre's "Five Years of Excellence", with Gershwin and Bizet performed by two piano masters: Ramzi Yassa and Cyprien Katsaris, the French-Cypriot pianist (along with arias from Mozart's le Nozze de Figaro sung by Gala El Hadidi accompanied by the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nader Abbassi). This unforgettable concert took place at the Manasterly Palace on Rhoda Island, the original location for the Centre's activities.
No doubt, over the past few years, the Centre gained a remarkable reputation through the quality og its concerts and rich programmes put together with awareness and precision. In the 2008-09 season, the International Music Centre moved to the Golden Hall of the Prince Mohamed Ali Palace in Manial where it will remain until the Manasterly Palace is restored. Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, Kim Youngho (South Korea), Nima Sarkechik (Iran-France), Wang Jue (China) have all givne remarkable piano recitals. On 17 January, it was piano and cello recital night.
Hassan Moataz is a young Egyptian cellist, a graduate of the Cairo Conservatory, the winner of several local and international prizes. He has toured several European and Arab countries where his talent was repeatedly acclaimed. Sonja Park, pianist, studied in Seoul and Vienna, the winner of various international competitions and many prestigious awards and scholarships. Thus we had two young talents, Moataz and Park, in an exceptional setting. All we needed was a captivating programme to complete the recipe for a musically fulfilling evening.
The concert began with Moataz's solo performance of Handel's Passacaglia for Cello solo, a technically demanding piece. Afterwards Beethoven's Sonata in A Major No. 3 Op. 69 demonstrated both artists' individual abilities, joining them in a brilliant dialogue between piano and cello. Finished in 1808 and published a year later, dedicated to Beethoven's close friend, Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstei, the sonata belongs in Beethoven's intermediate and most productive period. This is also referred to as his "heroic period", marked by his completion of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, piano trios and the violin concerto. Throughout his life, Beethoven composed five sonatas for cello and piano yet the third one is especially known for its thematic diversity and profoundly melodious character. Justifiably it is one of his best loved sonatas and a staple of many concert halls. It is also Beethoven's only sonata for cello and piano with a scherzo movement, which adds a joyful colour demanding a significant dosage of buoyancy from the performers. Unlike other sonatas composed at this time, here the cello's role is not limited to a pure accompaniment for piano playing the obligatory melodies, but each instrument receives equal prominence as they share the melodic lines.
Throughout the whole piece, Moataz and Park remained perfect partners and their awareness of the need for balance resulted in a repeated exchange of the roles of melody-carrier and accompanist. Their intelligent dialogue and clear sensitivity confirmed the two artists' musical understanding, topped with technical facility and evident talent. Park's notes are very clear and sublime, expressive and well-controlled. When the time came, her clean lines were dissolving in a wide range of colours and beautiful phrasings of Moataz's cello. Not only did the two performers remain responsive to one another, they also managed to lure the audience to the very last note.
Moataz's superb technique and Park's careful precision shone once again in Fauré's Elegia for Cello and Piano Op. 24. The Elegia is a one-movement,, short composition, with a simple ABA layout, in which cadenza re-introduces the funeral tonality from the beginning, but this time in an octave higher. Written in 1883, Elegia was originally conceived as part of an unfinished cello sonata. It is a magnificent example of French music and definitely one of the most touching pieces in music history. In 1890, Elegia was orchestrated by Fauré and is often played as such. An extreme dynamic range and a masterful use of all registers of the cello, bright versus dark sounds, manipulation of mood and emotion are appealing to performers and audiences alike. Its poetic lines resounding in the Golden Hall made the slightest breath blasphemous. If classical music could kill, it would definitely do so by one of those poignant experiences at the hands of Fauré.
The second half of the concert opened with Gamal Abdel-Rahim's Improvisation on a Peddler's Tune for cello solo. The piece is one of the landmarks of the Arabic classical music repertoire and is placed among the major national works for cello in the 20th century. "Abdel-Rahim crafted a carefully notated, technically challenging vistuoso solo piece based on a peddler's song from the Egyptian coastal town of Abu Qir. It allows the cellist to have great expression and use many colours evoking the sounds of Egyptian folk instruments, while exploring the Arabic microtonal mode (maqam) Bayyati," we read in the concert notes. The choice of this piece served as an excellent variation and a reminder of those Egyptian composers, Abdel-Rahim in particular, who should be placed in the limelight more frequently.
Shostakovich's Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 40 was the last piece to be played. It is one of Shostakovich's early works, composed during his emotional turmoil prior to his difficult situation vis-à-vis the political regime. The sonata's first movement opens with a theme introduced by cello, soon to be accompanied by piano lines which eventually lead to a strong climax. The second movement explodes with energy with repetitive strong accents coming from both instruments. The largo, the slow and intense movement sets the piano as the dark backdrop for the cello's rhapsodic theme, while the allegro finale offers a sharp wit and a rondo in which the main lighthearted theme reappears several times. The sonata's general structure and the composer's emotional background result in a piece which with much to offer the listener, triggering both emotional and intellectual responses. Moataz made all the musical points very clear and his strong bow and exceptional technique left a long-lasting impression.
And so, with a backdrop of lavish architectural elements, two hours of pure magic: there were no exaggerated mannerisms, no extravaganza... The evening of 17 January was simply one to remember.