Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Woes of the true musician

Why, asks Ati Metwaly, is Nayer Nagui leaving his post with the Cairo Opera Orchestra?

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cu201
Al-Ahram Weekly

After three years as artistic director and principal conductor of the Cairo Opera Orchestra, on 30 June 2014, Nayer Nagui decided not to renew his annual contract. Considering his expertise, popularity in the field and considerable accomplishments, the decision came as surprise to many.

“When I accepted this post back in 2011,” Nagui says, “I decided I would not stay more than three years, regardless the situation. I believe that this is just enough time for a conductor to implement his vision. A change and a new school is part of the natural growth of the orchestra. Now I will be only a musician and will go back to the post of conductor of the Cairo Opera House, a position I held between 2007 and 2011 which does not include artistic and administrative authority over the orchestra.”

Nagui’s term was far from a bed of roses. When, in September 2011, he took on the orchestra’s artistic, administrative and financial responsibilities, he must have been aware of the great challenge that lay ahead of him. But the problems he confronted will not be understood without a look into the complex background of the situation at which he arrived.

Though the Cairo Opera House started losing foreign musicians prior to the revolution, the events of 2011 triggered a huge tide of departures of foreign artists discouraged by lack of security and financial issues. Within a couple of months, the Egyptian musicians – many destined to stay in their chairs – became indispensable in a new way. Some found work in the Gulf. Others, realising the Opera would need them no matter what, used the newly discovered national sense of empowerment to make financial demands. At the same time, sadly, they ignored their duty to artistic quality.

Since its inception in 1994, the Cairo Opera Orchestra – one of two state orchestras operating under the Cairo Opera House, the second being the Cairo Symphony Orchestra – had of course gone through high and low points. Its artistic and administrative deterioration had began a few years before the revolution, but it was in 2011 that it reached rock bottom. In September 2011, as the conversation reveals, Nagui was given not a solid two decade-old orchestra but a body with more holes than Swiss cheese: an ensemble with no clear vision and many artistic defects, administrative negligence, financial inequalities and a number of missing musicians.

Nagui believed that the first step on the way to stopping the bleeding was to restore the fair compensation system, and so salary adjustments became his top priority. “Until that point the musicians’ salaries were often based on interpersonal relations with the previous management,” Nagui explains, “not on the chair or expertise. Together with administrative and financial personnel, we created a clear income chart for each chair with balances based on the accepted ethical and artistic codes. The salary adjustments included significant raises for some and minimal ones for for the others, but despite a short bout of opposition, as the musicians began to feel that they were paid according to a clear, logical and ethical system, they appreciated the change. This goes to show that when people see fairness prevailing they are convinced and abide by the system.”

The scarcity of musicians was the next challenge. Having no budget to employ foreign artists, Nagui reached out to young Egyptians. “Prior to my taking over, no fair auditioning system was in place; newcomers would join in through connections rather than artistic merit.” Proper auditioning – and that included a clear announcement, programme expectations and transparent evaluation process where each of eight judges had the same share of votes, as well as auditions behind the curtain – allowed Nagui to fill the missing chairs with a number of young talents. And while this provided much needed hope, for Nagui it also brought on the additional challenge of teaching them orchestral performance dynamics and etiquette.

While thus restoring the orchestra, what is more, Nagui was in the heat of the first season, with rehearsals for operas, ballets and gala concerts piling up. “My philosophy is to work in a normal atmosphere, a balanced environment, expecting professional demeanour of the artists. I oppose the rigid or even condescending methods that some conductors use with musicians,” he comments. Yet as he tried to restore the system, the discrepancies in ethical and artistic priorities between him and the young musicians began to surface.

“Many young musicians appear at the rehearsals completely unprepared,” he recounts. “Many do not even start to care or work on the music until I address them directly. Those attitudes offend experienced and serious colleagues in the orchestra and definitely this is not my understanding of how music works. It is all very sad.” Nagui explains that some behavioural traits common in recording studios but not appropriate in a serious classical music environment were introduced by some members of the orchestra. “Unfortunately my way of handling the rehearsals didn’t fix this problem. Apparently, my way fits more advanced and experienced musicians. Yet, I am not willing to change and pretend to be someone I am not.” Nor can change  come from the top of the pyramid, he feels. It must happen from the bottom up, from education, which he feels is in a deplorable state at the Cairo Conservatory.  

Pursuit of money outside the orchestra and decline in work ethics as the musicians grew convinced that the Opera will not let them go is more than any professional music environment can accept. Nagui mentions instances of musicians repetitively failing to show up to rehearsals and even concerts. “Some musicians do not care if they have their salaries cut since they earn thousands outside in the recording studios or in concerts with well-known commercial musicians.” In this regard, Nagui’s hands were tied. “Work rules and regulations implemented by the Opera are old, they don’t often make sense, and many of them are inapplicable to the current circumstances; but it was impossible to change the rules. They are solid, linked to the Opera’s official dynamics and laws,” he explains, pointing out that, as long as any musician is assured that he cannot be replaced, the situation cannot improve. “Egypt seems so different from the rest of the world, where artists face enormous competition and fight for a chair at the orchestra.”

Indeed it was the ethical aspect of musicianship that keeps coming up in this conversation. It is clearly one of the core principles of art he represents and believes in. Asked how his position might have given him personal opportunities, Nagui proves oversensitivity — for it is well known that some conductors fall into a trap of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” and use their power and budgets to invite a foreign conductor only to have the favour returned.

According to Nagui “such relations make the conductor grow but not the orchestra and even if this is a well-known practice that doesn’t mean it’s right, especially when you represent a state orchestra. An artistic director can invite a foreign conductor only if he sees that conductor’s contribution to the orchestra as an important part of its artistic development, not as an opportunity to pursue personal gains, disregarding the actual expertise of the invitee and paying no attention to the orchestra’s needs. In this regard, there is a lot of abuse in Egypt, where state money is used under the false pretence of the so-called artistic exchange. The official protocols must be in place and if an artistic director and principal conductor have a suggestion, the institution should make sure that it is supported with a clear vision that includes artistic benefits for the orchestra.”

Nagui cites the Cairo Opera Orchestra performing alongside international soloists from the North West Opera, Ireland, in a production of La Boheme as an example or real exchange, last July. Reccurent visits by guest conductor Thomas Kalb, the General Music Director of the Heidelberg Philharmonic Orchestra, Nagui says, added great values to the artistic development of the musicians. Equally, Nagui praises David Crescenzi, another returning guest conductor, who will replace him as the orchestra’s principal conductor.

Despite so many obstacles – from endless internal problems to socio-political instability affecting the cultural scene at large – Nagui believes that he managed to achieve important improvements in the orchestra. “I might have not realised all my dreams, but I think I managed to correct a number of internal issues, juggling what tools I had at my disposal.” Apart from restoring a comprehensive administrative and financial system while he resumed his regular responsibilities conducting ballets, operas and gala concerts, Nagui also launched a number of interesting initiatives. Among his noteworthy projects is Music Now, a series focusing on contemporary music. “We gave three concerts in the series. My goal was to bring contemporary music to the audience, which is not always at ease with this genre. This was done through choices of works that represent interesting fusions between the cultures. I hope that with the arrival of David Crescenzi, this series will continue...”

Today, as he moves back to the post of conductor at the Cairo Opera House, Nagui has no regrets. “By the end of the three years I realised that 90 percent of my time had been spent solving problems, dealing with administrative issues and bureaucracy, leaving only 10 percent to music. Now I will become a full time musician and composer; I will go to the Cairo Opera House for rehearsals and concerts only.”

In his context, Nagui mentions that his commitments in the next season include two ballets, a gala concert, a concert with Omar Khairat and a Christmas concert. “I will go back to composing. In parallel, I will invest a lot of time in the Cairo Celebration Choir,” which Nagui founded in 2000 and which became an integral part of Egypt’s cultural life, “changing it into an NGO while implementing a large-scale vision on a national and international scale.”

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