Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Clatter clatter, bang bang

By David Blake

Cairo Symphony Chamber Orchestra, Ahmed Hamdi (violin soloist and conductor), Cairo Opera House, Main Hall. December 18

The festive bells are ringing, the town is swinging and 31 December is drawing near. And the bigger the party noises, the quieter the things at the opera become.

Awed by a media tidal wave and press battery this strange, ghost-haunted concert was perhaps the last the Cairo Opera House will have of the century. With a giaconda-like smile we heard it at first and then we didn't. Something shone through the procedures to divide it into two.

The conductor-violinist Ahmed Hamdi had a tough job. He treated the first half of the concert, all Mendelssohn, briskly, almost fussily, but clearly. The extraordinary, highly worked compositions of Mendelssohn's Sinfonia XII in G minor for Strings was revelatory.

Every note shone and sang in the ensemble. The chamber orchestra of the Cairo Symphony were very grand and paid due attention to the Mozartian grandeur of its stately tunes.

The atmosphere they produced was, from the opening bars, strong, Boys Own Paper stuff. A young boy slouching back in an armchair, dreaming or contemplating adventures, a being quite lost in music. The music develops into an elaborate carpet, beautifully woven, of strange juvenile dreams. Elaborate but not corrupt and they take the time they take to develop.

Mendelssohn never lost his young feeling -- his stay was not long enough because, like Mozart, he was born with a shadowed soul, always light but aware of the dark.

This Augustan, muscular work shows Mendelssohn at his best, which was a best of stature. He had everything -- beauty, a genius boy-marvel with no superiority and nothing self-satisfied, and vast personal wealth.

All this was before the heroic age of materialism which blossomed soon after his death and might have lightened his uncertainty. Even his toughening up sessions with Queen Victoria, who adored him, failed to ease his self-criticism and almost obsessive pessimism.

This small Sinfonia is like a notebook. One marvels at its deftness and invention. Half way through it slips into another colour, almost as if the boy in the armchair dreaming his dreams had moved into a darker place. But it always maintains its patina of youth -- of the youth who does everything well and shines with love thus provoking jealousy and envy.

Why did he have so much? In some areas he must be superficial. But it seemed not. Like Mozart he was saved by music itself -- the heroic fibres were toughened by the talent. Queen Victoria told him to take his time but his engines were too powerful and he failed to keep up with the speeds they set.

Anyway, listening to this work, so fresh, free and full of hope, was the best gift a millennium could give -- like the sight of dawn due on the wings of the early morning bird.

After this happening came the Concerto for Violin and Strings in D major played by Ahmed Hamdi. It is unlike the E minor with its endless flow of songs for the violin. It opens turbulently, a devil may care sense of joy at its own dexterity. Hamdi played it all with an almost icy exactitude which kept the temperature of the music down to cold classic. But the tone was always sweet and his technique allowed him to strike out with a terrific speed.

Throughout, the music enjoys itself. Simple, unaffected, with pleasure at its own quality. Hamdi made little of its difficulties. Like all Mendelssohn, it is highly professional, thriving on the polish he was able to give it.

The concerto ends in a dance, a sort of czadasch which gives the impression of being of two minds -- to stop or continue?

After this came the orchestral performance of the Fifth Symphony of Schubert. The strings were having a bright night. This symphony was in four movements though it might as well be eight. Schubert invented tunes to clothe them that simply soared through the work without even development.

Hearing the Fifth always brings to mind the Ninth. How did it all come about? How vast did Schubert's range stretch? Within the tightly made classical formula he went as far as Beethoven. The Fifth is a leafy small picnic by comparison. Movement after movement pass like songs and nothing develops. Easy, relaxed, loving and generous, all the things we adore in Schubert sail past. He is there in the journey but there are holes about. Doorways which threaten to let us hear the possessed, stormy composer. But not a thing of trouble or doubt happens. The symphony is an aerial show, like an electric display of goods we see but do not recognise.

However it is not Elysium. Human difficulties do appear. The surface of this endless, softly swaying landscape threatens to give way to the Schubert we know.

But he never comes. For the fire and shadows we must wait for the next four symphonies.

Christmas Concert, Cairo Opera House, December 19

An outing that stood up well to the queue forming for the millennium bash party. Christmas is merely Christmas, not a confrontation of the galaxies. The galaxies are God's business, Christmas is man's.

The Holy Family, the Babe, the Mother on her way to deification. And the music?

The Christmas festival has provided composers from 1AD to 1999AD with a positive flood of lied, songs and visuals, oratorio and passions to decorate the musical mind.

The Cairo festival show gave us to understand there was something bigger round the corner, so they kept it modest and tuneful, its music well sung and played. It was professional without too much jam and flowers. A programme, plain but with warmth. Pleased, a sell-out, and will again next Wednesday when it is repeated. Christmas moves tickets quicker than Verdi. Even the isles were filled. Yet the night seemed not a long draw, no religiosity, just firmly faithful and singable.

It began with Handel, delivered by an orchestra and Nabila Erian to sing Let the Bright Seraphim. Erian left no time to wonder how a star copes with time. This particular star coped with everything. She entered grandly, in a coral coloured dress, high styled, and took her place. The manner and appearance were beyond what we usually receive. She was the real thing and the voice, thanks be, was there to help her.

Let the Bright Seraphim is nasty Handel. She had amplification, but then so do all those Aida's out there in space. So why not? The voice was in order. She can still sing. Tops were easy, the middle voice grown a bit and the lower voice, called chest, has developed into not a mezzo or a bass, but a proper dramatic chest sound. What is left of the voice has coloured and above all she still has a recognisable timbre. So she was moving and courageous. There was a light here from the past, here and now still bright enough to light a way to the rumbustious future.

The youth choir from Heliopolis offered traditional pieces, especially the Little Drummer Boy, and the entire audience stood for the Hallelujah choir from the Messiah of Handel, joined by the long line of the St Anthony Bell Ringers with Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

The second part of the concert was a musical scena, electric but tuneful with Erian as Mary doing long melismas. The upper stage looked quite awesome. The piece was impressive, like an early Germanic story of the virgin birth.

The party ended and what might have been a rather flat but pompous official show of Christmas was a well made, happy show of affection.

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