Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Gloria ad musicam

Ati Metwaly on the ironies of life, death and Mozart

Al-Ahram Weekly

When, in 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart passed away at the age of 35, he left behind hundreds of works: operas, concerti, symphonies, chamber works. Ironically, the composer died during his first assignment for a Requiem, a mass for the dead, leaving the composition unfinished, with discussions on who completed it ongoing until date.

The particular circumstances surrounding the Requiem add to the aura of everlasting interest in this work. In July 1791, while busy working on his opera The Magic Flute, Mozart received a letter from a person unknown to him requesting the commission. Short of money as usual, Mozart only needed the advance payment of 50 ducats to accept. Though he promised to finish the Requiem in four weeks, work on it continued to be interrupted, however. Mozart had obligations and his failing health further complicated progress. It was at this time that he remarked, “Did I not tell you that I was composing this ‘Requiem’ for myself?” On 5 December 1791, shortly after midnight, he died.

Over two centuries later, Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor, K. 626, is still performed again and again all across the world, with each concert leaving the same imprint on the listeners’ minds. Not only is the composition an ode to death, it is also an invitation to contemplate life and develop an acceptance of death as an inevitable part of the earthly journey.

Offering some spiritual realisations, others a unique aesthetic experience, the Requiem has been performed a number of times in Egypt. Back in 2001, the late David Blake immortalised one such occasion under the baton of Ahmed El-Saedi on these pages. In the mid-2000s, the Reqiuem was sung by the Cairo Choral Society, a choir conducted by John Baboukis and operating under the umbrella of the American University in Cairo’ Performing and Visual Arts Department. Most recently, in 2014, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra under its then principal conductor Jiri Petrdlik played the composition again at the Opera’s Main Hall.

Alexandria’s musicians recall only two Requiem performances at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), in 2004 and 2007, both featuring the BA Chamber Orchestra, the World Festival Choir (WFC) and conductor Sherif Mohie Eldin, who at the time headed the BA Arts Centre. The WFC is an entity comprising thousands of singers from across the world who meet when a call for a choir is announced.

When needed, the members residing in the call’s vicinity come together and within a few rehearsals prepare the required programme.

On 25 April, Mozart’s Requiem returned to the BA, bringing along a whole lot of plans. A day later, on 26 April, the concert was repeated in Cairo at the All Saints’ Cathedral. This time, the production incorporated artistic forces from within the BA Arts Centre: the BA Chamber Orchestra, the BA Amateurs Orchestra and the BA Choir, conducted by the current director of the Arts Centre Hisham Gabr. The orchestra was also joined by wind musicians from Cairo, and the choir expanded with members from the Alexandria-based Heaven Harp Choir. The soloists of both evenings were soprano Dina Iskander, alto Rodica Ocheseanu who is also the choir master, tenor Hisham El-Guindi and bass Reda El-Wakil.

The BA Orchestra manager Shady Abdelsalam says the Requiem had been on his mind and that of choir master Rodica Ocheseanu since April 2014 when the orchestra and two choirs – BA and Heaven Harp – joined forces on one of Mozart’s shorter works, the Coronation Mass, conducted by Mohie Eldin. Abdelsalam adds however that taking into account the size of the orchestra and choir, at the time the Requiem sounded like mission impossible. The arrival of Gabr in mid-2014, and his eagerness to invest in music allowed the musicians to go further.

“In December 2014,” Gabr explains, “I worked with the orchestra and the choir on a New Year programme. I could see great potential. This is actually when I began thinking about expanding the orchestra as well as turning the choir into a resident one. We needed a big work that could push this idea forward. Though very challenging, Mozart’s Requiem seemed like the perfect choice.”

The idea excited the artists and, though Ocheseanu called it an “almost suicidal step”, all parties involved embraced the project with passion. Apart from his regular work with the BA Chamber Orchestra and coaching the BA Amateurs Orchestra, Shady Abdelsalam began training 20 members of the latter. For her part Ocheseanu took care of perfecting the BA Choir and started regular rehearsals with the Heaven Harp Choir. “The BA Choir has many remarkable female voices while the Heaven Harp Choir has a strong male section. The blending of the two was beneficial for all of us,” Ocheseanu explains.

Abdelsalam adds that for the Heaven Harp Choir, who specialise in church singing, the Requiem was an opportunity to explore new material. Jean El-Kess Elia who heads the Heaven Harp Choir agrees that the work was a challenge: “It is a difficult piece for our choir, I’d even say almost ‘cruel’ to some amateur singers. Yet everyone’s belief in the project helped overcome obstacles and fears.”

The choir, he adds, made a number of sacrifices in its own programming to meet the demands of the Requiem.

The work paid off. The final rehearsals saw a 100-strong choir and stronger orchestra supported by woodwind and brass from Cairo.

The BA Chamber Orchestra’s notwithstanding, according to Gabr, the BA Amateurs Orchestra showed “a surprisingly impressive level”. Ocheseanu, who created a solid base of coaching and amalgamating the two choirs, had hoped for more rehearsal time but, smiling, she quotes Leonard Bernstein, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”

Success was no doubt also due to the music itself. As Gabr explains, “The Requiem is a legendary piece, it is very well-written. The last piece that Mozart composed, it is also the most mature, grandiose, one of his best compositions and one of the best pieces he wrote for choir and soloists.”

Even at the stage of rehearsals, one could glimpse something unique in the making. Late in the evening of 24 April, the musicians stepped down from the stage ready to face the next day’s audience, thinking about all the details, so eager to give their best they were counting the minutes to the performance — anxious to see the final result of their months-long efforts.

On Saturday 25 April the BA’s great hall filled with over 1,200 listeners. The first note of Introit broke the hall’s silence, followed by Kyrie, Dies Irae... One by one, the movements resurrected Mozart’s genius, carrying the audience through 50 glorious minutes. The artists were rewarded with huge applause.

The performance at the BA was complemented with visuals designed by Ahmed Nabil, the BA Arts Centre Cinema Programme Coordinator. Photos and video fragments, all black and white, were projected on the small screen upstage.

The Requiem opened with a deep aesthetic contemplation of a fragment of Michelangelo’s famous Pieta. Listeners had to wait until the mass’s final movement, Lux Aeterna, to see the complete work in marble. In between, however, Nabil projected other images: Francisco de Goya’s painting on the French occupation of Spain in 1808; Eugene Delacroix’ Liberty Leading the People, a painting commemorating the July 1830 Revolution, which toppled the French King Charles X; a video in slow motion presenting crowds marching and saluting Adolf Hitler; a shot from an explosion of a nuclear bomb; Donald Rumsfeld’s oblivious laughter in the course of the Iraq War.

Naturally, the choice of visuals was not accidental. “Not only is the Requiem a work about death,” Nabil says. “It is also an opportunity to revise the values of life. The pictures and videos were aimed at portraying man-made tragedies, inviting reflection.”

Nabil adds that the screenings reversed the roles of music and visuals. “We are used to watching films with music in the background.

The Requiem’s protagonist was undeniably music, images only added hints of flavour to the journey,”.

Alexandria’s success reassured the orchestra and the choir of their abilities, it gave the soloists — some of whom had performed the Requiem a multitude of times, others for the first time — a sense of accomplishment. The next day in Cairo, the All Saints’ Cathedral was packed with over 1000 audience, with people standing on the sides and balconies, and many unfortunately no longer able to enter the location.  Once again Mozart spoke to the listeners through the orchestra, choir and soloists, and once again, the audience rewarded the artists with vigorous applause.

Ocheseanu played a double role, coaching the choirs and singing the alto part. “Singing is my personal joy, and a small contribution I made to Requiem,” she comments, regretting that due to her responsibilities with the choir she does not sing solos more often. Born and educated in Romania, before coming to Egypt in late 2011 and taking charge of BA Choir in 2012, Ocheseanu has had over 15 years’ experience which includes productions of the Bucharest National Opera Theatre, the Ian Dacian Ensemble and the National Opera House in Bucharest.

“I sang Requiem more than 150 times, between 1993 and 1995, in France,” says the renowned Egyptian bass-baritone Reda El-Wakil, a member of the Cairo Opera Company. “I guess at that time I must have sung it in all the churches of Paris,” he chuckles.

This time the Requiem brought El-Wakil back to the BA, years after he had participated in the centre’s production of Opera Miramar.

El-Wakil pointed to the great effort made by the choir and the orchestra, mentioning “the particularly expressive way of conducting by Gabr, which added glow to the music”. He also explained that the Requiem’s melodies are well known to the audience, and the music beautifully distributed among all the voices — a joy to sing: “There are wonderful ensembles, captivating quartets, the voices complete one another while each contributes to the success of the work.”

For her part soprano Dina Iskander says she sang the Requiem almost ten years ago, with the Cairo Choral Society.

Mozart opens his work with choir and some soprano lines as the music slowly builds an emotional weight, time and again inviting a rediscovery of the composer’s genius. As if sitting on the edge of Mozart’s bed as he determined to bring to life each note and each bar of the Requiem, we easily understand Mozart’s fate, the fate of all humans. How submissively we learn to befriend death... And when the journey ends, we can feel the passing of the composer juxtaposed with the eternal life of his work, we become emotionally altered. It is in the final movement that the soprano returns, leading the choir to a highly emotional close, or rather cleansing.

In the last 15 years, Iskander appeared in many opera productions and music concerts, but the Requiem brought to the fore a new brilliance in her voice. Iskander seems to enjoy the whole composition, but she points to Lacrimosa, the movement in which the choir only sings of tears and death as “the most touching movement. You feel the music crying and there are moments when the violins tear your heart out,” as it leads you to the Amen. “Hisham Gabr clearly painted all those emotions. His gestures are very clear. At the same time he does not impose his views but rather discusses them with us. We reach an artistic unity easily, fact that added to the joy of the whole experience,” Iskander noted.

Tenor Hisham El-Guindy, a member of the Cairo Opera Company since 2002, says the Requiem is “not a regular choral work. The whole blending has this supernatural character, deeper than anything else that the composer ever wrote,” and yet solo parts are among the least complicated known to Mozart. The composer was known for having an unparalleled understanding of the human voice though this does not mean that some of his operas do not include highly challenging arias. It is probably in the Requiem that Mozart placed all his cards on the beauty of voice, making sure that all the soloists and choir felt comfortable singing.

“It was a very important timing to perform Mozart’s Requiem. We are passing through very difficult times, death is all around us, people keep dying in protests and wars. In this context, the Requiem being a death mass, it carries many connotations that surpass the musical values,” El-Gendy notices. This is exactly how the slides presented by Ahmed Nabil at the BA added to the musical aspect of the work. Unfortunately, at the All Saints Cathedral’s no screening was possible.

Still, “the audience itself was very unique,” according to El-Gendy. “I could see people of all ages and all walks of life. You can tell when they are regulars and when the listeners come for the first time to the concert hall. They all listened and listened carefully.” El Wakil noticed a family with teenage boys at the Cairo concert, sitting in one of the first rows, singing along the choir lines. For his part Abdelsalam noted, “It was a wonderful experience. Though Mozart’s Requiem is a composition that the listeners always enjoy, I have never seen something like this, and such a huge audience”. El-Wakil went on, “For the musicians, the fact of having such an audience is one of the best feelings and an important boost that helps us to feel that what we do is worthwhile.”

The number of audience made Iskander rightly point out that “we have to stop repeating the myth that in Egypt there is no interest in classical music. When you present something good, the audience will come, there are always people interested. They need to be well informed and believe in the production’s values.”

Ocheseanu said the Requiem gave the BA team a completely new facelift and contributed to the repositioning of the BA’s artistic activities and of Alexandria on Egypt’s cultural scene. “Slowly but surely, Alexandria is regaining its status of an important cultural centre. We are very proud of that! Art done by Alexandrians, for Alexandrians and the rest of Egypt, what else can you dream of?”

But each success is also an obligation. Gabr explains that he has already laid down plans for a dynamic expansion of both orchestra and choir, “Currently the BA Chamber Orchestra comprises 16 musicians. We have already announced vacancies for resident woodwind, brass and percussion musicians. As for the choir, now we have a few dozen amateurs and we are in the process of turning 40 or maybe more of them into a resident choir. The Requiem proved that we are ready to do this and even more.”

As for what the audience can expect next, Gabr says he must first discuss it with Abdesalam and Ocheseanu. “We will do our best to deliver even more exciting work in the near future,” he says.

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