The devil in the programming

An otherwise successful concert of music by Mozart and Weber raises questions about the spread of unconventional programming.

Published on 2 Dec 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

The Gomhorriyya Theatre is not the most favourable location for Egyptian audiences used to attending classical music concerts at the Cairo Opera House. Situated at the far end of Downtown and bordering on Ataba, a trip to this theatre seems a real adventure, especially when parking a car is a task in its own right.

The uncomfortable location of the Gomhorriyya Theatre is possibly one of the reasons why its auditorium is usually not completely filled. Nevertheless, looking at the last several months, I must say that there has been a slight increase in audience numbers, and it is to be hoped that these will keep rising.

On Saturday, 20 November, audience numbers were good enough not to discourage the orchestra and soloists. It was time for bassoonist Tamer Kamal and clarinetist Yong-Ki Choi to perform with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tarek Mahran.

The concert programme presented an unconventional music sequence. The first half included two works by Mozart, the overture to The Marriage of Figaro and the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A Major, K.622, followed by Weber’s overture to Oberon and the Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra in F Major, Op. 75, in the second half.

This unconventional programming is worth looking at.

The traditional format of a concert consists of an overture, concerto and symphony. There is an intermission between concerto and symphony, so the complete sequence becomes overture-concerto-intermission-symphony (or large orchestral work). There is a rationale behind this programming, and this specific sequence has survived for many years, simply because it has proved to be successful.

It creates an emotional journey and musical buildup, doing justice to the soloists shining in the concerto and to the orchestra throughout the evening. Each concert has a story to tell, and usually the conductor choosing the programme takes into consideration a variety of links between all three segments. When classical programming is respected, the bonding elements seem to make perfect sense.

As such, the musical story begins with a shorter, often brisk piece (an overture), which aims to captivate the attention of the audience. Sometimes orchestras perform early, short symphonies such as early Mozart or Haydn symphonies that can be as short as 15 minutes. All this serves as preparation to the entry of the evening’s star: the soloist performing a concerto with the orchestra. Once the star finishes the concerto, it’s time for the main course: the symphony.

Sometimes the overture is replaced with another piece, though this is one designed to serve the same purpose in the overall structure. It happens very often that a concert has a particular soloist, around whom the conductor tailors other elements. For additional impact, many conductors think about linking the first and last pieces of the programming, so the musical voyage can be taken as a whole. The final journey is a combination of a variety of works and keys, blending energies and orchestral colourings. As such, the traditional routine is not accidental.

This long explanation of traditional programming does not aim to question the reader’s knowledge. Many of us are somehow aware of concert programming elements, even if we do not fully comprehend them. The elaboration on programming will help us realise, however, the drawbacks that exist in concerts that break the classical sequence.

Over the last several months — if not a couple of years — Cairo orchestras have tended to perform concerts that deviate from traditional programming. The number of deviations is rising, and concerts mixing and matching often unrelated elements have become worrying.

Possibly non-regular concert- goers enjoy more mixed- ingredient concerts and broken programming, but if this has to serve as a sufficient argument for the phenomenon, there is really something wrong. This un- classical — or, let me say, ANTI-classical — trend might be a reflection of the programming freedom adopted by some orchestras, for example the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, reviewed in Weekly 1018.

Unfortunately, over the past few months, many concerts performed by Egyptian orchestras have tended to choose usually lighter elements of the programme. Tarek Mahran is not alone in his search for unconventionality.

Mahran is an oboe player at the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and a professor at the Cairo Conservatoire. His experience as a conductor is mostly with the Wind & Percussion Orchestra of the Conservatoire, which he has conducted since 2003. In parallel, Mahran has conducted several successful concerts with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, such as the Cairo Opera House 20th Anniversary Concert.

Mahran followed an unconventional programme, dividing his concert into two equal halves: he chose Mozart for the first half and Carl Maria von Weber for the second. Both composers require an orchestra that can fit perfectly the rather small stage of the Gomhorriyya Theatre.

The concert began with the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Egyptian audiences can still remember the complete opera performed at the Cairo Opera House last September (see the review in Weekly 1017), when the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nader Abbassi was no doubt the best part of the performance. Mahran’s choice of this overture gave an uplifting beginning to the concert, and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra delightfully conveyed Mozart’s lively material.

The Marriage of Figaro was composed during the most fruitful years of Mozart’s life. This was the time when Mozart started maturing, and his seemingly careless attitude to life finally found a counterbalance in the experience gained reflecting on his instrumental works. The overture to The Marriage of Figaro is a frequently performed work, beloved by audiences. Not only does it boost energy on entry to the opera, but it also serves as a perfect beginning for a symphonic concert. Mahran’s choice proved successful.

The following work, the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A Major, K.622, is the last of the important instrumental works composed by Mozart. It carries lots of personal burdens, and the composer was already ill while composing it. The slow movement, the adagio, expresses deep sensitivity and sorrow, which serve as great material for a clarinetist to express the beauty of the instrument’s timbre. It was especially the Concerto’s adagio that Yong-Ki Choi, the soloist, captured with daring confidence. It would have been perfect, had not some slips made their way into the third movement, the Rondo- allegro. Nevertheless, this Concerto is charismatic in all three movements, each in its own way.

Born in Seoul (South Korea), Yong-Ki Choi received the Kunstiensche Ausbildung and Soloist Diploma in Germany. He has played with many orchestras in Korea, Bulgaria, France and Germany and has given solo recitals and chamber concerts in many countries. Currently, Yong-Ki Choi is principal clarinetist of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.

After this Concerto, the audience was taken back to the beginning and Carl Maria von Weber’s overture to Oberon. The overture is characterised by a captivating horn opening, Adagio sostenuto, Oberon’s call, soon answered by strings. The overture’s charm has made it into one of the most popular of all Weber’s compositions. History reveals that this overture has proved to be more successful than the opera itself.

Once again, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra moved from overture to concerto, this time Weber’s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra in F Major, Op. 75. In the first movement, allegro ma non troppo, Mahran released good energy from the orchestra. The conductor exhibited good control over orchestral phrasing in the vigorous first movement, characterised by march-like emotional charges. Weber’s Concerto requires a skilful bassoonist, excelling technically and emotionally capable. Tamer Kamal played it safe, leaning on the clear orchestral accompaniment.

Tamer Kamal graduated from the Cairo Conservatoire and pursued his education in Geneva. He has won several prizes and performed in Egypt, as well as in Switzerland, France, Germany, the USA, Greece and Italy. Currently, Kamal is a professor at the Cairo Conservatoire, leader of the bassoon section of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and a member of the Baroque Orchestra in Switzerland.

Both halves of the evening included beautiful compositions by Mozart and Weber. The orchestra and the conductor had done their homework, delivering delightful moments in several parts of the programme. In spite of some technical flaws, both halves were definitely good material for a successful evening. The aesthetic fulfillment would have been complete had the audience had the chance to move to the main course.

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