Published in Al Ahram Weekly
Ralf Gothóni is a renowned contemporary musician from Finland. His versatile career as a pianist, chamber musician and conductor has yielded a series of international recognitions. He performed as a guest artist in many prestigious festivals and worked with a global multitude of celebrities. To date he has recorded over a hundred CDs as soloist and chamber musician. Gothóni has been artistic director, guest, chief, and principal conductor of various orchestras, including the well known English Chamber Orchestra (2001- 2006). His academic work is as abundant as his experience as a performer. Besides professorship at several renowned academies in Finland (Sibelius Academy in Helsinki), Germany (Berlin Hanss Eisler Hochschule), the UK (Royal College of Music in London) and Spain (Madrid Escuela Superior de Musica Camara), he has given master classes all over the world.
Four years ago Ralf Gothóni also instituted the Finnish- Egyptian “Musical Bridge”, supported by NGOs and the Savonlinna Music Academy, of which he is the artistic chairman. The Embassy of Finland to Egypt and the Cairo Opera House extended their cooperation, too, aiding in the growth of this invaluable initiative. “The Musical Bridge is a week of musical workshops, master classes and joint performances between Egyptian and virtuoso Finnish musicians and opera singers,” we read at the Embassy website. For the fourth year in a row, the Finnish-Egyptian Musical Bridge reached out to several young and talented Egyptian musicians, giving them an opportunity to work with some of the best artists from Finland. This year, depending on their specialisation, musicians will be working with Ralf Gothóni, Marko Ylönen (cellist), Tom Krause (bass-baritone), Matthias Veit (piano), Eija Tolpo (Opera Director).
The first concert on 26 March presented the culmination of a week-long collaboration between Egyptian and Finnish artists. Opened by Ambassador Roberto Tanzi-Albi, the evening started with Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D (KV 285). Keeping in mind Mozart’s known reservations about the flute, an instrument which he “could not stand” (as he expressed it in a letter to his father in 1778), it was a lovely reminder of Mozart’s compositional flexibility against all odds. At the same time, from the standpoint of the performers, the choice of this work was afforded proof that the festival was expanding. The previous three festivals included mainly works for strings and voice. This year, for the first time, the festival organisers included woodwinds.
“Ylönen has offered a new and fresh vision of Mozart’s quartet,” commented Doaa Abdrabo, flautist and a first time participant in the festival. This freshness was very obvious in Abdrabo’s performance, accompanied by Mahmoud Said (violin), Suzan Abdrabo (viola) and Shady Isaac (cello). The latter three all participated in the Finnish-Egyptian Musical Bridge last year. As part of the cultural exchange, Mahmoud Said and Suzan Abdrabo travelled to Finland in the summer of 2009, where they took additional courses at the Savonlinna Music Academy. They both underline the extreme benefits resulting from this exchange. In Savonlinna, amongst other works, Suzan Abdrabo and Said performed a composition by Omar Khairat, “which was very warmly received by the Finnish audience,” Abdrabo tells us.oosama ba3at wala l20
Mozart’s flute Quartet was followed by Luigi Boccherini’s String Quintet La Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid ( Night Music of the Streets of Madrid ). The piece is already known to Egyptian audiences and its last movement (titled La Ritirada di Madrid, or The Retreat of the Military Night Watch of Madrid) was played as an encore by the Solisti Veneti Orchestra in February 2010 (concert reviewed in Weekly issue no. 985).
In La Musica notturna musical phrases imitate what Madrid residents could hear during the night and a day awakening — the bell tolls of Ave Maria, amusing tunes of the singers passing along, the retreat of the military night watch etc. — expressed by string instruments. In “Minuet of the Blind Beggars,” two cellists, Ylönen and the Egyptian Mohamed Salah followed Boccherini’s advise by their instruments upon their knees and strumming the strings in imitation of the sound of guitar. Later on, Yasser Ghoneim (first violin), Mohamed Harb (second violin), Moustafa Emad (viola) followed the guitar imitation on their own instruments.
In Boccherini’s own time, the 18th century, Night Music of the Streets of Madrid was said to incorporate elements understood uniquely by Spanish culture, over the centuries, the piece proved to be well received all over the world. No doubt one of the reasons behind its success is the amusement it offers to both audience and performers. And it was in this light spirit that the five string musicians performed it.
Rageh Daoud’s Fuga and Four Pieces for String Quintet, performed during the same evening, added a wonderful accent of work by this renowned contemporary Egyptian composer. Moustafa Emad who participated in the festival for the first time performing the Egyptian composer’s work under the leadership of Ylönen was an eye opener, facilitating yet another understanding of this work. Likewise Mohamed Harb, a first-time participant: he pointed up the many benefits resulting from the project, underlining Ylönen’s deeper understanding of chamber formations especially. Yasser Ghoneim, a festival regular and participant in courses at the Savonlinna Music Academy, stressed the academic strength of Gothóni and his team.
The second part of the evening returned to Mozart with his Piano Quartet. Gothóni on piano was accompanied by Said (violin), Isaac (cello) and Suzan Abdrabo (viola). His performance revealed many facets of Mozart work, where the composer’s lightness gives way to several deep and moving moments, especially in the work’s second movement. “Gothóni has a profound knowledge and understanding of music. He oozes ideas and gives simple solutions to various issues,” Isaac commented. With such a positive approach, the professors’ dedication and the participating musicians’ enthusiasm, the Finnish-Egyptian Musical Bridge was an understandable success. Most of those young Egyptian musicians are already contracted by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (and the Cairo Opera Orchestra). Each is a talented artist for whom a direct work with the renowned Finnish musicians (through the workshop or a cultural exchange) is not only a great opportunity but a necessary step in widening their musical horizons.
The concert performed on 28March, sub- titled “Egyptian Rising Stars”, included works by Brahms and Mendelssohn (performed by Said, Isaac, Hossam Raafat, viola, and Mirette Hanna, piano). The 29 March Final Gala concert (Final Concert of Opera Master Classes) concentrated on the voice repertoire. A large number of young Egyptian singers performed arias and songs from Puccini, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, R. Strauss, Verdi, Donizetti etc. (Maysa Oranza, Ragaa El Din Ahmed, Fatma Said, Amira Reda, Mirhan Damir, Fairouz Foty, Ghada Samir and Hany El Shafee in addition to preparation by the Cairo Opera Company repetiteur Grieg Martin).
The Finnish-Egyptian Musical Bridge is not only one of the fashionable “bridges” between cultures. It is a serious project aiming to give solid educational and artistic benefit to participants. It allows the musicians to exchange experience, learn new approaches to music and at the same time it serves as a medium to present chosen Egyptian composers to international audiences. With a variety of benefits behind such initiatives, we can only encourage its expansion. And the growth of the festival is very promising, written into Gothóni’s plans, is to reach out to musicians from other Arab countries and together form an orchestra with Cairo as its centre. Let’s hope to see those plans in action by next year.