The motif of death is one of the most frequently explored themes of the arts, be they literature, visual art, theatre, film or music. Death, an integral part of life with the human being as one of its manifestations, is omnipresent, irreversible and unavoidable. It is the only constant. Death is also credited with many things. One of them is setting creativity in motion, and becoming a bountiful supply of inspiration, a muse in its own dark right.
On Saturday 8 April, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Hisham Gabr, gave a special concert dubbed An Evening with French Music. As the theme indicates, all the works performed were from the French classical music repertoire, in the sequence of the evening: Le Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Élégie (Elegy) for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 24 by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor, for Violin and Orchestra, Op.28 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) and Fauré’s Requiem in D minor, Op. 48. As soon as we look closer into the programme, we notice how all the work inspire reflection, a questioning of life and a search for answers all seeking solace in the presence of The Constant.
Such reflections are particularly pronounced in three out of the four works featured: Le Tombeau de Couperin, Élégie and Requiem. In this context, the concert was well positined in the week between Palm Sunday (9 April) and Easter (16 April), and particularly the days which according to the New Testament focus on Jesus’s crucifixion and his eventual resurrection, a symbolic victory over death. However, in an unfortunate turn, the same week also brought unexpected human tragedy when on Palm Sunday (9 April) two churches in Tanta and Alexandria witnessed explosions which claimed nearly 50 lives and left dozens injured. The horrific events took place hardly one day after the music from the hall spoke to the listeners.
But let us go back to the French composers. The evening opened with Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, a composition he wrote in memory of his six friends who died during the WWI. Carrying retrospective values, Le Tombeau is a response to the tragedies of war yet also a wonderful homage to French Baroque music (hence the name of François Couperin in the composition’s title) which comes as an awakening of nationalist values. The orchestra gave each movement its distinct colour, capturing the essence of Ravel’s work, embedded in the unique sound and style of French music, one that might prove challenging for a non-French orchestra.
In his turn, Fauré was featured with two works, a brief Élégie and a more elaborate Requiem that filled the whole second half of the evening. The Élégie for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 24, is always loved by the audience. It is a very brief work, yet filled with a strong emotional charge that resonates in our being long after the piece has ended. During the Alexandria evening, the young cellist Ahmed Fouad took the listeners through the Élégie’s deeply touching passages, where the round sound of his lower register contrasted with the sharper sonorous higher notes, leading to well deserved applause from the audience.
But Fauré was yet to return with his take on Requiem, a large scale work for orchestra, choir and soloists, which in Alexandria featured the Egyptian soprano Dina Iskander and the Lebanese-French baritone Fady Jeanbart. Requiems have a special place in the history of music and are often identified with the compositional pinnacle of any composer. Apart from the musical reasons that make a Requiem a strong mark in its creator’s repertoire, the composition’s importance is emphasised by the religious charge, the highest degrees of contemplation about death. It is a human encounter with death through art, and one that becomes almost physical as delivered by music, words and emotions. Many requiems are a morbid realisation of the unavoidable end, speaking of the final judgment, and expressing hope in God’s mercy, as is the case in Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626.
Fauré does not associate death with fear and his Requiem is not narrowed to a musical memento mori. In his exquisitely fresh work, he chooses to ponder all the rest, the culmination of the human’s life journey. Fauré’s Requiem has a soothing and calming character, it calls on the soloists to meet those emotions, braiding the freshness of French music with a pastel-tainted crystal sound. In its tender elegance, Fauré’s Requiem is also very radiant, carrying us to the celestial delicacy of In Paradisum, the final movement, which we can still savour hours after leaving the hall.
For the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra and Choir (and its choir master Rodica Ocheseanu), Fauré’s Requiem is yet another stepping stone in the ensembles’ artistic development. It comes as the fourth large-scale composition and a significant point on the long curve of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Choir’s artistic development. It is a journey that began two years ago with a religious Mass (Mozart’s Requiem), and continued through a secular contemporary oratorio (Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana), German Symphony (Beethoven’s Symphony No 9) performed last November and now, with Fauré’s Requiem, has reached the French repertoire.
The memorable evening of 8 April included yet another composition, which did not allude to the end of life, even if it came from the composer with his own share of toying with death. We are talking about Camille Saint-Saëns whose tone poem for orchestra Op. 40, known as Dance Macabre (Dance of Death), is a grotesque musical game. The Alexandria evening however presented another work by Saint-Saëns: the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor, for Violin and Orchestra, Op.28, a composition that allowed us to discover – or re-discover – the 14-year-old talent Salma Sorour.
Saint-Saëns’s composition is as technically demanding as it is dazzling to the listener. The challenge is great, especially when we think about a young soloist like Sorour. The surprise is even greater when we listen to her perform it with immaculate technical precision. The composer wrote the work for Spanish violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, whose famed technique made it to the highest almanacs of music. Sorour is a unique talent, first introduced by Ahmed El-Saedi in 2010, when she participated in the Cairo Music Competition, winning first prize before enrolling at the Cairo Conservatory. Ever since she has received numerous honours in Russia and Egypt, and performed with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. It is very obvious that we will hear a lot from this sparkling young talent, who as she continues to master her technique is yet to unveil her personalised interpretations of the performed works. In the meantime, her performance at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was awarded with warm applause by hundreds of listeners.