Rehearsal time at the Cairo Opera House, and members of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (CSO) are busy preparing for another show. A mix of different ages, both men and women, all snapping into action for their regular Saturday-night concert: the scene is strikingly different from the one you are used to, on stage. The musicians are informally attired, for one thing. And the evidence of exhaustion notwithstanding, they are palpably more comfortable and at ease. Those of them who are Egyptian are members of a small community -- so much so that, often former Cairo Conservatoire colleagues, they all know each other -- something that "creates a sense of familiarity", according to Beiram Diaa, 26, French horn group leader. He is dressed in baggy trousers, with a short pony tail and trendy glasses -- and he likens it to a football team: "The more we play together, the better we play and understand each other's moves."
The CSO formed in 1959, though it had operated informally in some form as the Egyptian Broadcasting Orchestra, which was established to meet classical music needs. Once formed the orchestra, developed and directed by Franz Litchauer, an Austrian, started playing at the now burnt out Opera House in the eponymous Midan Al-Opera. Since then the CSO has contributed much to promoting classical music in Egypt -- providing the opera with regular symphonic concerts and accompanying opera and ballet companies including the Bolshoi, the Kirov and the London City Ballet. It invites foreign conductors, "an enriching tradition", by Diaa's testimony, and keeps abreast of worldwide developments. For a recent concert, they played with the American conductor Gilbert Kaplan, who offered Mahler's Resurrection to Cairo audiences. More importantly, in recent times, the CSO has worked to endorse local talent.
For years, indeed, the orchestra had depended on foreign musicians. But according to Inas Abdel-Dayem, Opera House flautist, dean of the Conservatoire and, for the last three years, CSO manager, that is already changing: "We are introducing more Egyptians to the CSO; it's been our policy for a few years now. Fifteen years ago we only had 10 Egyptians playing. I have studied abroad and personally believe that foreign presence can only enrich an orchestra. Still, we need Egyptian blood. Now, happily, with a lot of young people among them, Egyptians make up some 80 per cent of the CSO." Abdel-Dayem has spent many years at the Opera House, and as she wanders along the corridor, one has the feeling that she is perfectly at home. "Becoming the manager of the orchestra on top of being one of its musicians," she goes on, "has enabled me to develop many of those things I wished to see when I was only playing. We've managed to organise special concerts for the young, for example, in which to introduce pieces they could relate to."
Ironically, while there are now more Egyptian players, local audiences are still not as eager as they might be to listen. Certainly, there is a loyal core of devotees but classical music in a land rooted in the modal tradition, as Diaa, who has been at the opera since 1998, explains, is bound to be hard work: "Attitudes have barely changed. We've been performing for years but the cultural barrier remains." It's a problem he blames on society too: "If there was a strong foundation at school, the situation might improve." Abdel-Dayem agreed: "It's impossible to expect everyone to relate to our music. Still, we're trying to select pieces that might prove familiar and inviting the likes of Andrea Botchelli to help generate an air of novelty and excitement to our shows."
The artists, after all, are driven by individual passion. "Once you get into it professionally," Diaa says, "it's very difficult to find anything else of interest; it's addictive and time consuming." For his part Sherif Hassan, 30, assistant double bass group leader, argues that classical music is in need of marketing; only then will it be integrated: "It's different when you play to hall full of people; I feel it improves my performance. And naturally it's what I want more of, as a consequence." But aside from audience size, the CSO has been the highest aim of music graduates. "Before graduating from the Conservatoire," Hassan recounts, "I used to play in different orchestras. But for any musician who wants to become a professional, the opera is the ultimate goal. It is the most refined place to play classical music." In Hassan's family of six, there are four professional musicians, it turns out; for him none of this was entirely new, especially since his own father was a member of the CSO and a Conservatoire teacher: "It's not something I necessarily chose, though there is plenty of scope for expressing your personal talent even then."
Outside, sitting on a large instrument container in the corridor, Suzanne Abd-Rabbu looks like a student. At 21, in fact, she is the youngest female member of the CSO. She has been playing the viola with the orchestra for three years, and has played with many orchestras worldwide. With an uncle who teaches at the Conservatoire, a sister who plays the flute at the CSO and a brother who is a member of the Cairo Opera Orchestra, her choice of career was less tough than it might have been. Long hours of training, one major difficulty, wasn't entirely unfamiliar to her: "I was practicing for seven to eight hours a day; it was exhausting as a child, when I used to think, 'I just want to play.' But it's paid off. In the end you cannot do it otherwise."
The difficulty of that career extends to social considerations as well. Telling your acquaintances about the instrument you play, you are likely to be greeted with incomprehension or ridicule. "I find it funny now," Abd-Rabbu says, "and I know every time I am introduced to someone, the chances are the viola won't be popular with them." Nor is it particularly lucrative. "Years ago young musicians were unable to live well by their art," Abdel-Dayem says. "Now things are changing." Though he concurs that the job pays well by the standards of the Egyptian market, Diaa feels that local musicians still earn far less than their counterparts abroad. Hence the appeal of working elsewhere in the world. Yet, Diaa explains, "those who play abroad rarely go back to Egypt, because they play well in countries where classical music is at the heart of everything". And not returning, he feels, would not be right: "I think this country has given me a lot, and I think it is in need of every musician it produces." Hassan, too, following 16 months in Germany, opted for returning: "I felt I belonged here." For her part Abd-Rabbu thinks the competition in the West is fiercer, something that puts her off in itself. As Diaa puts it, expressing his dream of becoming the best ever French horn player, "I simply wish to keep on playing."