Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 February 2003
Issue No. 625
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A promise unfulfilled

Amal Choucri Catta finds all is not as it should be

Arabic Perspectives Festival; Cairo Symphony Orchestra, cond. Ahmed El-Saedi; Main Hall and Small Hall, Cairo Opera House, 25 January to 8 February, 8pm

Cairo Opera House has for ten days been the scene of daily concerts presenting works by Egyptian and Arab composers under the umbrella of the Second Arabic Perspectives Festival, organised by Ahmed El-Saedi, conductor and head of Cairo Symphony Orchestra.

One can have few reservations about any event intended to promote Egyptian and Arab composers -- they are, alas, sadly in need of such promotion and without initiatives like the festival many local composers would have no way of accessing an audience. Nor is promoting Egyptian and Arab symphonic music a new idea -- similar endeavours were made by Cairo's old opera house. At one time the programmes performed by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra -- founded in 1959 by the Austrian musician and professor Franz Litschauer -- regularly featured compositions by Egyptians. Following the destruction of the Opera House by fire in 1971 concerts moved to the Gomhouriya Theatre where, under the baton of the late Youssef El-Sisi, the regular Friday night concerts would often include a prelude, overture, concerto or symphonic poem by one or another local composer. Thus it was that audiences gradually became familiar with the music of Aziz El-Shawan, Gamal Abdel-Rehim, Sayed Awad, Rageh Daoud, Abu-Bakr Khairat and others.

Following the Cairo Symphony's move to the new Opera House, and under the direction of the Austrian Thomas Christian David, the musical policy of the orchestra changed so that by the time Ahmed El-Saedi took over in 1990 the necessity to promote local talents had become more urgent. For some time El-Saedi was content with including occasional pieces in the regular concert schedule. Twelve years after his appointment as head of the orchestra, though, he decided to take things a step further, initiating the first Arabic Perspectives Festival, which took place from 2 to 16 February 2002 and included works by 21 composers, the majority Egyptian.

To claim that the event was a success would overstate the case -- both publicity and organisation were far too lax -- but it did hold out promise and evidently attracted the attention of several Arab composers who are now among this year's participants.

Among them is Heba Al-Kawas, who has just turned 30. This Lebanese composer has a Masters Degree in operatic chant and in music composition, and was awarded a scholarship by the Academia di Chiggiana di Sienna, Italy, where she undertook further studies in opera singing and composition. An accomplished musician, she gave her first concert at the age of six and has recorded 21 of her own compositions with the Dnepropetrovsk Symphony Orchestra in the Ukraine. She is currently member of the board of the Lebanese Higher Conservatory, as well as professor of operatic singing and composition. She is also member of the National Committee of Music at UNESCO. Her composition "Pleusis No. 1", a symphonic poem in three movements, successfully opened this year's festival.

Her compatriots Elias Rahbani, Jamal Abul-Hosn and Abdullah El-Masri, who studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in Moscow and is currently a professor in the department for composition at the Kuwait Higher Institute for Music, also participated. El-Masri's first symphony closed this second festival.

Syrian Safwan Bahlawan's The Storm and the Sailor, for choir and orchestra, was also performed, as was a composition by Dia Succari, the author of a number of interesting musical works and of books on music.

Not all the Arab or Egyptian participants, though, could be considered symphonic composers. Many had limited their interests to folkloric songs while others had barely set out on their musical careers. The festival, though, accorded them the same status as much more established practitioners. And as in all events of this type there were some inexplicable omissions, the most glaring being the late Sayed Awad, one of Egypt's most eminent composers. Awad spent many years in Jordan, where he founded the Jordanian Chamber Orchestra, and is the author of a number of major compositions, symphonic poems, chamber music, works for violin and orchestra, and the deservedly popular Yarmouk Symphony, as well a three-act opera, The Death of Cleopatra, based on an Ahmed Shawqi poem. Born in 1926, Sayed Awad began his musical career as a violinist with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. He studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire under David Oystrach, and went on to conduct several of the Soviet Union's most important orchestras. Back in Egypt he founded the first Children's Orchestra and was appointed a professor at the Cairo Conservatoire, at the Cinema Institute and the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts. He also reorganised the Cairo Symphony Orchestra at the old opera house before being appointed professor of music at the National Jordanian University. The Death of Cleopatra was given a concert performance in February 1994 at the Cairo Opera House, with the symphony orchestra conducted by the composer. Yet Awad seems to have sunk into undeserved obscurity, while others, many far less significant musicians, hogged the spotlight at this year's festival, presenting several pieces each.

Which fact brings us to the question: who is responsible for the choice of the composers and of their works for the festival, and according to what criteria are they chosen? Why are some composers represented by several works while others have a single item in the programme. More telling, perhaps, why is it that pieces included in last year's festival have been reprieved this year? Surely such a policy is at odds with the festival's purported aim, to introduce audiences to music to which they would otherwise have no access.

Twelve Egyptian composers in this year's programme were included last year, among them well- known names like Refaat Garrana, Tareq Ali Hassan, Gamal Abdel-Rehim, Aziz El-Shawan, Adel Afifi, Rageh Daoud, Ahmed El-Saedi and Nader Abbassi. Some of the people included in this year's programme, such as Mona Ghoneim, wife of Rageh Daoud, already enjoy excellent contacts abroad. Her work, like that of Patrick Bishay, composer of the opera Machine Justice, and the ballet The Second life of Pharaoh, is already known abroad.

It might also be argued that Atteya Sharara, founder of the Sharara Sextet, and Sherif Mohieddin, he of Three Operas in one Hour, already receive sufficient exposure. and if they are to be included, then what of Tareq Sharara who has written a great deal of incidental music but who has figured in neither of the festivals.

This second festival leaves rather too many questions unanswered. The event, however well- intentioned, however necessary for those composers who have no contacts abroad and no one to promote them, requires much better planning, publicity and organisation if it is to ever do what it is intended to do.

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