Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Flyover of sound

Ati Metwaly celebrates a unique initiative

The fifth Finnish-Egyptian Musical Bridge in Cairo continues efforts that started in the spring of 2007 to forge a connection between Finnish musical experts and Egyptian young musicians. It is the initiative of Ralf Gothoni, a Finnish pianist, conductor and professor, supported by a number of parties.

For over a week, a number of music professors and maestros with a variety of instrumental and vocal specialisations work with young students during master courses, rehearsals and concerts. The Bridge also offers further development opportunities at the Savonlinna Music Academy and summer activities at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. Apart from cooperation with Egyptian students, the academy hosts musical Bridges with young musicians from Turkey, Germany and 13 other countries.

In previous rounds of the Finnish-Egyptian Musical Bridge, the Finnish team worked with young and aspiring musicians from the orchestras of the Cairo Opera House. This year, however, Gothoni is working with over 20 young instrumentalists and singers from the Cairo Conservatory. The team also includes Kristian Attila ê" violinist, Mark Gothoni ê" opera director, Eija Tolpo ê" vocal coach-accompanist, along with Austrian soprano Gabriele Fontana and German pianist Hartmut Holl. The cooperation will culminate in four concerts to take place at the end of March and the beginning of April.

"Apart from educational values, the Musical Bridge is a great opportunity to create many cultural friendships. The language of music transcends all political, religious or social barriers. We unite as musicians and humans, exploring our feelings, and reach goals together," Gothoni comments, adding that ê" Finland being a country of only five million ê"it is important to connect with the rest of the world.

This year the workshops and concert programme stresses compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. "The classical repertoire helps us concentrate on a number of technical matters," Gothoni says. Working with Mozart, he explains, allows musicians to understand why they play this or that note, and to find a specific colorisation. The chosen compositions serve as examples to help students reach that clear pulse for each note, not only following the score.

On the other hand, Gothoni finds that exploring chamber music compositions are value-adding to all young students. "Chamber music can change your opinion of what music is or what it can be. Through those workshops, we explore interaction between the musicians and many important contrapuntal relations." When with students, Gothoni compares cooperation between the musicians in an orchestra to Cairo traffic, where everyone is well aware of his own positioning yet needs to operate within a much wider and more complicated complexity of factors.

This year, working with the Cairo Conservatory students created an additional challenge for the Finnish team, since many technical aspects previously taken for granted now required attention. The cooperation however also creates an opportunity for understanding the musical development of Cairo's young musicians and assessment of those areas in which they might benefit from foreign expertise.

Gothoni understands that Egypt's music scene has many interesting talents to offer; he sees potential in students who have "open eyes and hearts and are not refrained by too much ego". As much as creative talent can bring important results, however, he also feels that some areas of musical education can benefit from improvement of fine skills as well as better awareness of what is happening in the international music scene. As such, the Musical Bridge offers a miniature model of a different kind of education as well as a focused method to the student's musical development.

In this context, Gothoni underscores the great competition that rules the musical world. "Today, many young students dream of becoming soloists. But this ambition needs to be supported by the realization of an incredible competition in the musical world, with a particularly strong presence of brilliant students coming from Asia." Gothoni gives an example of China having over 15 million students playing piano and over 18 million violinists. A large number of them excel on the musical and technical levels and compete in the international arena. Understandably such overwhelming competition puts additional pressures on young musicians who want to make it to the top.

But the competition is not the only challenge musicians must face. Today, classical music is challenged by other genres, appealing to larger audiences and accessible through various channels. Gothoni feels that, in order to survive, classical music has fallen into market nomenclatures which often prevail over the musicality of the commodity being marketed. Since communication is failing, Musical Bridges help to reestablish the connection with the core artistic and aesthetic values of this art.

Gothoni points to tools that can be used to attract audiences on the one hand and revitalise the values of classical music on the other. He gives as an example the Venezuelan El Sistema-Simon Bolivar Music Foundation, a music education programme initiated in the mid-1970s by the economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, which reaches out to young people living in impoverished environments or prone to drug abuse and crime. A few decades later, there are over 120 youth orchestras operating under El Sistema across Venezuela, and hundreds of instrumental training outlets teaching music to children with poor socio-economic backgrounds. Apart from musical values, studies show that over the past decades El Sistema's activities have contributed to lowering the country's crime rate.

Gothoni feels that in addition to all those values, El Sistema also develops and strengthens musical culture and as such has become among the pillars supporting the existence of classical music. Another example he gives is the MIAGI festival, MIAGI being an acronym for Music is A Great Investment. Operating in Pretoria, South Africa, MIAGI is a non-profit company that promotes music education for children and youth as an effective tool for social improvement, addressing the issue of ethnic relations through its all-inclusive programming and offering a platform for intercultural creative dialogue. The initiative also includes Western classical music. Music development programmes, wide outreach and a team of dynamic and dedicated professionals will always bring about great results worldwide. With the many challenges facing musicians Gothoni remains optimistic, believing that good education, enthusiasm and commitment is a key to sustaining musical forms that we perceive as endangered.

The Finnish-Egyptian Musical Bridge targets a small number of music students, offering them a glimpse of the education available at European music institutions. Beyond musical values, however, interaction with international and accomplished professors and musicians is part of the self-building process; it helps shed light on many aspects of music while triggering discussions of musical values and the role of the music in the world today.

The Finnish-Egyptian Musical Bridge will be returning in the following years, though Gothoni says it needs additional financial support.


The audience can see the fruits of this cooperation at four consecutive concerts taking place at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall. On 29 March, a chamber music concert will include Mozart's Quintet KV 452 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon and Brahms' String sextet B-flat major for two violins, two violas and two cellos. The 30 March concert will be dedicated to voice students performing famous arias and scenes from operas. On 1 April the Cairo Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Ralf Gothoni will perform works by Mozart: Piano concerto No. 11 F Major, Sinfonia concertante and first movement from the Symphony No 29 A Major. Finally, a gala concert will take place on 2 April including as a special guest Yuko Miyagawa (grandniece of the Japanese statesman Prince Fumimaro Konoe) on cello, Mark Gothoni on violin, Ralf Gothoni and Hartmut Holl on pianos with young Egyptian musicians.

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