From Soviet to Nordic

Works by Soviet composers, followed by a gala concert of Nordic pieces, were on the programme of the Cairo Opera House this week

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

The February 27 concert of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra opened with one of the most played of Beethoven’s works, the Coriolan Overture, which replaced the previously announced Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz. From Beethoven, the audience was immediately taken to Soviet composers Aran Khachaturian and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Only a few days after Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus was performed in the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House (reviewed in the last issue of the Weekly ), the Cairo Symphony Orchestra had another work by the same composer included in its programme.

Khachaturian’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in D minor was first composed for solo violin. The composer completed the work in 1940, dedicating it to David Oistrach, the Soviet violin virtuoso. The following year, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor was awarded the Lenin Prize for the Arts, one of four Lenin Prizes received by Khachaturian. In 1969, Jean Pierre-Rampal, the renowned French flautist, encouraged by the composer himself, transcribed the concerto for flute and orchestra, adding a new first movement cadenza.

Khachaturian’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra is a technically exigent piece, offering a multitude of musical segments that are challenging for the soloist. Inès Abdel-Daïm faced all the composer’s demands with her unique artistic individuality. Not only is she one of the most active artists in the classical music field, her responsibilities reaching beyond solo flute, she also has a profound history of masterful performances.

In the second movement, andante sostenuto, Abdel-Daïm’s dark lyrical notes spoke against the strings’ repetitive lines, creating a heavy mood filled with emotional accents. The sense of desperation was especially poignant later on, when the flute conversed with the strings and harp. It is in the second movement that Khachaturian uses his most touching sentences, moving the hearts of listeners to the undulating music.

Positivity returns in the third movement, where the flute has the chance to display cheerful elements within some obvious folk scents. Throughout the whole concerto, Abdel-Daïm carried listeners along between strong tensions and relaxing lovely brightness. No wonder this concerto is such a favourite among many Egyptian listeners, its melodies being used in several 1950s and 1960s Egyptian movies.

The second half of the concert continued with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. Conductor Andreas Sporri is regularly invited to conduct the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, and he was the orchestra’s chief conductor in the 2007-2008 season. His December 2009 concert with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra — reviewed in the Weekly ‘s issue no. 977 — included Shostakovich’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in C sharp minor, with Yasser Ghoneim as soloist.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 cannot be understood away from the surrounding historical events. Stalin died in March 1953, and Shostakovich worked on his symphony between July and October of the same year. “I did depict Stalin in music in the Tenth [Symphony]. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years,” Shostakovich confirmed in his memoirs.

The first movement has a reflective character, with a rather melancholic opening growing stronger yet keeping its suspense-like mood, while the brass section keeps nervously returning. The scherzo, the second movement, is fierce and rhythmic. The Symphony No. 10 is a monumental work, and even though it is a technically demanding composition for the orchestra — and possibly not Sporri’s speciality — several soloists excelled in their individual phrasing, especially in the symphony’s third and fourth movements, offering various dialogues between the solo instruments and the orchestra.

THE NORDIC GALA CONCERT performed at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall on February 28 was another interesting compilation of music from the Nordic region. It included works by Carl Nielsen, one of the most important Danish composers, the Norwegian Edvard Grieg, the Finn Jean Sibelius, and Wilhelm Stenhammar from Sweden.

Nielsen has composed many shorter works, among them the Helios Overture. The thematic material of this piece was inspired by the composer’s stay in Greece, and it is said to have been especially influenced by his admiration for the Aegean Sea shore. The music depicts the sun rising, introducing almost humming strings and then calls from the brass. As the day awakened, the Cairo Opera Orchestra under the baton of Nader Abbassi, invited the audience on an interesting Nordic journey.

Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 is one of the most popular and beloved by audiences of all piano concertos. Written by Grieg when he was only 24 years old (in 1868), the work’s compositional maturity and extremely touching sensibility means that the piece can be compared with another famous piano concerto in the same key (A minor), composed by a 35-year-old Schumann in 1845.

It was the first time that Egyptian audiences had the chance to hear Greek pianist Stefanos Thomopoulos, introduced in the programme notes as a “critically acclaimed, captivating pianist” and “considered as one of the most important Greek pianists of his generation.” Laureate of various international piano competitions, Thomopoulos’s biography underlines a series of international successes and performances with various renowned orchestras.

From his entrance on the Main Hall stage, his particularly long and muscled hands indicated the icy, sharp strength needed for Grieg. Yet, at the same time Thomopoulos added warmth and individual sensitivity to his performance. The Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nader Abbassi developed an obvious dialogue with the soloist, complementing this stunning musical material.

Grieg returned in the second half of the concert with two songs, “Jeg elsker Dig” and “Solveig’s song”. Grieg’s songwriting career was inspired by his love for his future wife, Nina Hagerup, to whom he addressed the song “I Love but Thee” (“Jeg elsker Dig”). The song’s sentimentality was the key to its great popularity. Sung by Jolie Faizy (mezzo- soprano), it was a reminder of Grieg’s particular tenderness.

The following piece, “Solveig’s song,” composed for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, soothed listeners to Mona Rafla’s clear and melodious soprano. For Egyptian audiences, the Norwegian language might seem rough and unmelodious. However, when adopted by Rafla and Faizy, the music and voices outshone any possible phonetic discomfort.

Faizy’s second appearance on stage, this time in Sibelius’s “Flickan kom ifrŒn sin ölsklings möte” (“The Girl came Home from her Lover’s Tryst”), glowed with the appealing dramatic texture of her mezzo, especially suitable for the song’s theme. Sibelius wrote over 100 songs, mainly settings of Swedish poetry, a language which this Finnish composer had mastered since his early years.

However, Sibelius is also well known for his many symphonic compositions, amongst them the Karelia Suite Op. 11, the last piece performed by the Cairo Opera Orchestra. The Karelia Suite opens with a march-like theme, in which brass and strings draw a tableau of a military parade. The middle horn accents of the “ballade” recall 15th-century Swedish courts. Another uplifting march, “alla marchia,” returns in the last movement. The Karelia Suite offers lots of opportunities for the orchestra to stress contrasts in the music, while Abbassi managed to transfer many of its captivating colours.

For Egyptian audiences, northern European composers are not explored frequently enough. Both Sibelius and Grieg are seldom played, and Nielsen and Stenhammar are in fact rarities. There was no doubt that the Nordic Concert was an excellent opportunity to revive the musical wealth of this region.


Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andreas Sporri, soloist Inès Abdel-Daïm (flute). L. van Beethoven: Coriolan Overture; Aram Khachaturian: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in D minor; Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10. Cairo Opera House Main Hall, Feb 27; Alexandria Opera House, Feb 28.

Nordic Gala, Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nader Abbassi, soloists Stefanos Thomopoulos (piano), Mona Rafla (soprano), Jolie Faizy (mezzo-soprano). Carl Nielsen: Helios Overture; Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor; Wilhelm Stenhammar: Excelsior Overture; Jean Sibelius: Karelia Suite; songs by Grieg and Sibelius. Cairo Opera House Main Hall, Feb 28.

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