Vivaldi among the Latins

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

In the 20th century, classical composers face the challenge of mainstream melody and rhythm, for their very survival depends on new explorations that stretch their creativity to ever broader forms. On 7 November, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui took Cairo listeners on a beautiful journey through a culture in which traditional musical phrasing has been incorporated into new forms.

“Latin American Night” opened with Moncayo’s Huapango, one of the best known pieces from Mexico. Originally written for orchestra, its melodies, rhythms and harmonies draw on the popular traditions of Mexico, making use of three Mexican folk dances: El Siquisiri, El Balaju, and El Gavilan. Considered by many the country’s second national anthem, Huapango is to Mexicans what Beethoven’s Fifth is to Germans or Pathetique to Russians.

Huapango is a short piece, yet it is full of colour that seem to glow, emanating from lovely solos for harp, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flutes and horns. Its up lifting melody and catchy 6/8 and 3/4 rhythms excite even the most reticent audiences. Nagui no doubt made a brilliant choice opening with it.

In this mood listeners could only welcome the next pivotal piece from Latin America: L’Histoire du Tango by Astor Piazzolla. This Argentine composer and bandoneón player has taken tango to a new level. Combining chromatic elements with dissonances and aspects of jazz does not overshadow the essence of tango in his work. L’Histoire du Tango, initially composed for flute and guitar presents the historical progression of tango in four movements. We hear a fast- paced early tango in the first movement, “Bordel 1900,” then Golden Age and nostalgic melodies in the slower second movement, “Café 1930.” Rhythmic complexity and jazz reign in the third, “Nightclub 1960,” while in the fourth, “Concert d’aujourd’hui,” dissonance replaces lyrical harmony.

The Cairo Symphony Orchestra played L’Histoire du Tango as arranged “by Dmitry Varelas for the flute soloist Ines Abdel-Daim and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra,” so the programme tells us. And listening to this arrangement with Abdel-Daim as a soloist added special flavor to the evening. L’Histoire du Tango is a technically challenging piece. Nagui’s wise leading of the orchestra paved the way for the clear tones of the flute, while Abdel-Daim demonstrated her incredible versatility — previously showcased in dozens of masterful solo performances, international honours and several prizes. Her most recent achievements include the State Prize in the Arts (Egypt) in 2001; in 2003 she became director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and in 2005 she became dean of the Cairo Conservatoire. More recently, she was promoted to the position of Vice-President of the Academy of Arts in Cairo.

From Mexico to Argentina, then: the pattern was repeated in the second half of the concert, which presented La Noche de los Mayas by Silvestre Revueltas, the Mexican violinist, composer and conductor, followed by the Dance Suite from the ballet Estancia by the Argentine nationalist composer Alberto Ginastera. As Nagui explained, he selected La Noche de los Mayas for its thematic substance. A night spent in the presence of Mayan monuments will testify to the Mexicans’ pride in their cultural heritage, similar to what Egyptians feel for Pyramids. It was thus through the cultural bridge that we appreciated the composer’s talent.

The Dance Suite from Estancia is divided into four movements: “The Land Workers,” “Dance of the Wheat,” “The Cattlemen,” and “Malambo.” The opening is breathtaking: fast and rhythmic, it leads the listener into some of Latin America’s most vigorous music. The second movement is filled with tonal contrasts. It moves from elegant flute and horn the peaceful melodies of nature, whilst a strong rhythm returns with horns and tympani in the third movement. Finally, the suite erupts into fanfare.

This is not the first time that conductor and composer Nayer Nagui has chosen a thematic axis for his concert. “An English Night”, which he conducted last May at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall, was another such compilation. Not only is the approach attractive, it also directs the audience towards a specific cultural spirit. “Latin American Night” proved to be yet another effective move at the usually empty Al-Gomhoria Theatre, which this time nearly filled up. As Nagui told us, the Music Library holds hundreds of sheets of notation with Latin American treasures. If this is an invitation for other conductors to reach for them, all the better for Egyptian audiences.

Musically charged by the end of the concert, the audience applauded heartily — and they were rewarded with two encores: Piazzolla Tango-Etude #3 after the first half, and “La boda de Luis Alonsa” by Gimenez at the end of the concert. Traditional Latin tunes packaged into an avant-garde tonality, with delicious phrasing and pulse-pounding beats, the audience of Al-Gomhoria Theatre were almost ecstatic.

***

Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Concerto for Violin, strings and Continuo in C minor. Il Sospetto; Concerto for Violin, strings and Continuo in C Major, Il piacere; Concerto for Violin, strings and Continuo in E flat Major, La tempesta di mare; Concerto in A Minor for Oboe, strings and Continuo, RV461; Double Cello Concerto, for two Cellos, strings and Continuo in G minor,RV 531. Soloists: Sebastian Jolles (Cello), Raisa Kulik (Cello), Wessam Ahmed (Oboe). Solo Violin & Conductor: Yasser Elserafi, Cairo Opera House Small Hall, 31 October

When he was born on the day of the earthquake in 1678, a frail baby in the city of carnivals and splendid churches, it was believed he would not survive his first birthday. He lived. Ordained as a priest at the age of 25, he did not take to clerical life. Music became his passion. He knew kings and princess, and twice played violin for the Pope. But 63 years later, his body and his genius were laid in a pauper’s grave. One of the most influential musicians of all times, the greatest genius of Baroque, he was forgotten for over two centuries.

Antonio Vivaldi composed as much as Bach and Handel put together. On 31 October, an “All Vivaldi” concert was given by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra in chamber formation. The concert was conducted by Yasser El-Serafi, also performing solo violin in first three concertos for Violin, Strings and Continuo. The opening Concerto in C minor Il sospetto, one of the best known compositions by Vivaldi, is often found in Baroque music compilations. The following Concerto in C Major Il Piacere touched hearts of Four Seasons fans, as its first Allegro movement theme recalls phrases known from “Spring”. Given that Vivaldi was composing an average of two concertos a month, melodic recurrences should not surprise us. The Third Concerto in E flat Major La tempesta di mare definitely took audience by storm with its energetic first movement (Presto), and the same energy recurred in the concerto’s last movement.

El-Serafi’s conducting was principally reserved for the second half of the concert. In this part of the evening, the orchestra’s musicality became more audible, creating a backdrop for solo performances. Soloist Wessam Ahmed was technically flawless and musically insightful in Concerto for Oboe, Strings and Continuo in A Minor. But the greatest lure of the evening was in Concerto for Two Cellos, Strings and Continuo in G Minor: where the sharp bow of soloist Sebastian Jolles met Raisa Kulik’s profound warmth of sound.

The Cairo Symphony Orchestra, understandably preoccupied with big repertoires, tends to marginalise Baroque music. However, this genre is definitely sought after by a sizable number of Egypt’s listeners. El-Serafi has conducted Baroque formations in the past, so let us hope we will continue to enjoy such beautiful initiatives on his part.

 

Latin American Night featuring Moncayo, Piazzolla, Revueltas and Ginastera, Cairo Symphony Orchestra, soloist Inas Abdel-Daim (flute), conductor Nayer Nagui. Al Gomhoria Theatre, Cairo and Sayed Darwish Theatre, Alexandria, Cairo, 7 and 9 November

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