From birthday idyll to the shadows of crime
Amal Choucri Catta on a mostly lucky musical dip
Austrian Flute Quartet, Cairo Opera House, Small Hall, 12 March; Spirit of Europe Orchestra, cond. Martin Sieghart, Cairo Opera House, Main Hall, 16 March; Spirit of Europe and Cairo Opera Orchestras, cond. Nader Abbassi, Cairo Opera House, Main Hall, 23 March. All performances 8pm
During recent weeks Austrian-sponsored events seem to have been everywhere, with a total of five concerts in Cairo and Alexandria, press conferences, a musical competition for children and an interesting exhibition of photographs by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos at the Kalima Gallery of the Sawi Culture Wheel.
The concert series began with a chamber music performance organised by the Austrian Cultural Forum at Cairo Opera's Small Hall on 12 March and animated by the Austrian Flute Quartet. It commemorated Mozart's 250th anniversary and presented four of his quartets in addition to excerpts from The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. Flautist Matthias Schulz, violinist Veronika Schulz, with Ilse Wincor on the viola and Adelheid Litschauer on the cello, gave an engaging, excitingly fresh performance. The concert was repeated on 14 March at Alexandria's Sayed Darwish theatre.
Matthias Schulz, a flautist with the Vienna State Opera, is a fabulous soloist already known to Cairo audiences. One can only hope that he will soon return for a concert with Cairo's symphonists.
The following concerts took place on 16 March at the Opera's Main Hall and on 18 March at Alexandria's Sayed Darwish Theatre and introduced the Austrian Spirit of Europe Orchestra, conducted by Martin Sieghart. Established in 2004, the Spirit of Europe Orchestra is a cultural initiative by Erwin Boell, governor of the Federal Province of Lower Austria. The orchestra comprises 35 musicians from different European countries, with Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Austria playing the most vital role. Their repertoire ranges from baroque to 21st century music and they organise annual performances in the Middle East as part of a "dialogue between civilisations".
The orchestra's first concert at Cairo Opera's Main Hall introduced two soloists -- the enchanting Russian tenor Valeriy Serkin and the brilliant Polish violinist Tomasz Liebig. The programme opened with Richard Wagner's meditative Siegfried Idyll of 1870, composed as a birthday gift for Wagner's wife Cosima and first performed on Christmas morning of the same year to mark her thirty-third birthday. The performance took place outside Cosima's bedroom in their villa at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne, the 15 musicians conducted by a somewhat over-excited Richard Wagner.
The Siegfried Idyll is based on themes from the composer's unfinished string quartets and on motifs from his opera Siegfried, as well as on a traditional lullaby. It was never intended for public performances but financial hardship compelled Wagner to sell it in 1877 and it was published the following year.
On Cairo's Main Stage the Idyll was followed by two arias for tenor and orchestra, Per pieta, non ricercate, KV 420, and Misero, sogno, o son desto, KV 431, by Mozart.
The second part of the performance was dedicated to Mozart's Haffner Serenade in D-major KV 250 -- 248b, a perfectly structured work written in 1776 for the wedding of Elisabeth Haffner. The concert progressed impressively under Martin Sieghart's brilliant baton, enriched by Valeriy Serkin's shimmering timbre and Tomasz Liebig's dazzling violin.
The Austrian cycle closed with a final concert on 23 March in Cairo Opera's Main Hall, when the Spirit of Europe Orchestra joined the Cairo Opera Orchestra under Nader Abbassi with Ramzi Yassa at the piano. The programme opened with Shostakovich's Festive Overture Opus 96, an exuberant composition created in 1954 to mark the 37th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre on 6 November of the same year.
"It is just a short work, festive or celebrative in spirit, lasting three or four minutes," said the composer at the time. Last Thursday, at Cairo's Main Hall, the overture was somewhat longer, with brass fanfare and strings joyfully introducing a musical dialogue between the Austrian and the Egyptian orchestras. Nader Abbassi, as always, was perfectly in control of the entire evening.
A few weeks ago Ramzi Yassa performed magnificently in Tchaikovsky's piano concerto No 1. It had whetted the appetite of the audience for an equally impressive version of Mozart's piano concerto No. 14, in E-flat major, KV 449. Such expectations were sadly disappointed. It was clear from the very first chords that Yassa was in no mood to play Mozart, and was technically ill- prepared. He made use of a score, and seemed in need of more rehearsal.
The second part of the concert opened with Nader Abbassi's own composition, Between Dusk and Dawn, originally commissioned by the Grand Theatre de Geneve and inspired by the story of Raya and Sekina, the mass murdering sisters who lived in Alexandria in the early 1920s. Abbassi's composition is limited to the few hours "between dusk and dawn" left to the sisters before their execution. Following a hauntingly ambiguous introduction in the lower key the musical orchestration progresses in a rhythmic pattern leading to "the hunt and fall of a victim". The audience was musically transported to the market places where the two sisters found their victims, and thence to the zar, the final ritual reaching a spellbinding fortissimo as the victim falls to her death.
This mysteriously thrilling piece of music was one of the concert's main attractions. Nader Abbassi doubtlessly deserved the audience's cheers. He closed the programme with preludes from Richard Wagner's Lohengrin and Meistersaenger.