Experiment

Ewart Hall, 18 May, Schubert Mass in G, Cairo Choral Society, Cairo Festival Orchestra, Amira Reda (soprano), Matthew Hendrick (tenor), Michael Joyce (bass), conductor: John Baboukis, accompanist: David Hales.

Published on 26 May 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

The Cairo Choral Society was presented in Al Ahram Weekly (Issue 977, December 2009) in a review of their performance of Haydn’s Creation : “The Cairo Choral Society was established in 1983 by Larry P. Catlin with the purpose of understanding great choral works through performance. The choir operates under the umbrella of the American University in Cairo (AUC) and its Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) Department. Its past repertoire includes Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem, Haydn’s Nelson Mass, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Mozart’s Coronation Mass, Schubert’s Stabat Mater, as well as works by Britten, Williams, Beethoven, Rossini, Höndel, Puccini, and many others.” After that review, the Cairo Choral Society gave a performance of Dvorak’s Mass in D in May 2010 and another of Höndel’s Messiah in December of the same year. Accoring to the AUC web site, their concert in December 2011 will include Brahms’ Requiem, one of the most touching choral works.

Schubert’s Mass in G was this evening’s choice. Easter is already long gone — and the choir is best known for its Christmas and Easter concerts — but the Mass in G has a beautifully seasonal accent and is a wonderful work to listen to on any occasion. Dedicated to Gary Brand, according to the programme notes, the choir’s “friend, colleague and supporter”, the concert took place on two consecutive days, on 17 May at the All Saints’ Cathedral in Zamalek and on 18 May at the Ewart Hall. Both are regular venues for the Cairo Choral Society. In spite of difficult acoustics at the cathedral, one cannot imagine a better place to listen to oratorios or masses; the experience often compensates for possible artistic flaws. This year however I chose to attend the Ewart Hall concert.

It began with George Frideric Handel’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6 no. 7 in B-flat major, which is one of 12 concerti grossi, composed in autumn of 1739. Even though their freshness and colour have made the concerti incredibly popular, they are seldom performed in Cairo. The last performance of one (Concerto Grosso Opus 6 no. 1 in G major), by El Sakia String Orchestra, took place at El Sawy Culturewheel in November 2010.

The evening opened with Concerto No. 7, reflecting Handel’s practice of including concerti grossi as instrumental interludes during the performances of his oratorios. The originality of the seventh concerto lies in the orchestra being the base of the composition with no solo lines. Performed well, it is one of the most enjoyable compositions of the era. It seems however that the Cairo Festival Orchestra did not rehearse enough: Handel’s sparkling sound was somewhat buried under dutiful attempts to follow the notation.

Several issues resulted from lack of contact between the conductor, John Baboukis, and the orchestra, a fact which can be partially blamed on the Ewart Hall stage which was too small to host choir and orchestra as well as three soloists and a conductor. The orchestra was squeezed into to the choir and the singers had barely any space. This was especially evident in the core section of the evening: Schubert’s Mass in G. Baboukis stood on a podium with the orchestra too close to him, giving the impression of being at his feet. The packed stage was not flattering to the soloists, positioned within the first row of the choir.

***

Franz Schubert was only 18 when he composed the Mass in G (1815) in five days. Neither fact could take away from its beauty. Schubert’s work follows the classical structure of a mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei.

Composed in the Romantic era , the Mass in G follows the regular ordinary; musically and aesthetically, it represents a single, unified composition. During the evening, Baboukis decided to intersect Credo and Sanctus with Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum,” from Vesperae Solennes de Confessore (K.339). The only justification that the programme notes offer for this is that it reflects “actual practice during the celebration of the mass, when the various movements are not sung continuously, but occur at the various stages of the office.” However, it felt wrong for a single, unified composition to be interrupted by another composer.

Let us take a look back at the history and development of mass in music. Prior to the 15th century, the elements of a mass were separate, then set in pairs — Gloria-Credo, Sanctus-Agnus Dei — which were not musically coherent and at times composed by different people. But in the 15th and 16th centuries, at the threshold of the Renaissance, the so-called Cyclic Mass united separate movements (parts of the mass) into a larger unity, forming a set of musically coherent compositions — provided by a single composer and not by the liturgy. In other words, cyclic mass is the first multi-movement form in Western music, based on a single subject and by a single composer. The cyclic concept was an important shift towards long-term structural thinking, opening the door to the large-scale works of the following music eras.

Baboukis is known for his profound knowledge of early music; his interest in Middle Ages and Renaissance music might have, on the structural level, triggered the idea of combining Mozart and Schubert. “Laudate Dominum,” from Vesperae Solennes de Confessore included in Schubert’s Mass in G however does not add to the structure, neither does it complete it — since Schubert’s work is perfectly complete — but rather stands alone as an independent musical insert. The programme notes could have included a more elaborated explanation for this original procedure.

“Laudate Dominum” (Psalm 117), is the last and the most familiar movement of the Vespers. It was also a chance for Amira Reda (soprano) to demonstrate her vocal abilities. Reda’s parts in Schubert’s Mass in G confirmed that her vocal material will definitely develop, with further training and practice.

Matthew Hendrick (tenor) and Michael Joyce (bass) should be applauded for the courage of taking solo parts on their shoulders. Obviously both of them are preliminary choir singers and as soloists they bravely face the challenge of the composition and pressure of exposure. It timidity mixed with unfortunate positioning on the stage that made some of their parts inaudible.

There was an obvious great effort on the part of all members of the Cairo Choral Society and the orchestra but it seems that, due to difficult circumstances, they did not manage to rehearse enough. Even though this specific concert will not be in the choir’s best-performance annals, it is important to affirm their exemplary dedication over the years. The Cairo Choral Society with Baboukis is one of those rare musical formations that, through presenting works otherwise forgotten in Egypt, add an important dimension to the music scene.

 

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