Passion and fantasy

Cairo Opera House Main Hall, 28 May; Edward Elgar: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor, Op 85; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op. 35; Cairo Symphony Orchestra, soloist Ayman El Hanbouly, conductor Hisham Gabr.

Published on 2 June 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

On 28 May, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hisham Gabr treated the audience to a special evening which included the famous concerto for Cello and Orchestra by Edward Elgar followed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Even though it is an unusual experience to listen to those two masterpieces in one evening, their popularity and musical power attracted large audience to the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House. Since 1 March, the day the Cairo Opera House resumed its activities after the January Revolution, this was the first evening on which the Cairo Symphony Orchestra filled or nearly filled the auditorium. It is well to remember that only one day earlier, on Friday 27 May, the minds of many people were set on Tahrir Square, while on 28 May many focused on the Manchester United football match; neither overshadowed enthusiasm for the concert. This is definitely an indicator that after weeks of stagnation and declining audience numbers, the time for the revival of classical music has finally come, and the concert programme is among reasons behind this important shift.

The masterpiece taking up the first half of the evening wasthe famous Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 by Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Today the concerto is described as a cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire and the most notable work by the composer. But those flattering expressions did not surface until the 1960s, when the cellist Jacqueline du Pré caught the public imagination revealing unparalleled sensitivity to the composition, making it the most popular work for cello solo. Du Pré’s performance with New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim, her husband, is among the staples of any music lover’s shelf.

Although the myth of du Pré’s interpretation lives on, many cellists have added their original touch to the concerto. Composed in 1919, the work opens up space for the imagination and conceals much passion, expressing the composer’s sorrow and despair, and the disappointment he felt after the end of the World War I.

No doubt Ayman El Hanbouly’s dramatic interpretation added to the anguish expressed in the music. The lyrical third movement (Adagio) was soaked in profoundly touching colours on the part of the cellist. El Hanbouly adopted a very free style of performance which were challenging for the conductor. There were many good moments in all the movements, although at times, especially in the second and fourth movements, the orchestra and the conductor seemed to struggle to keep up with the cellist. Such random moments of conflict did not however diminish great passion and technical mastery of the soloist.

El Hanbouly started studying violon-cello at the Cairo Conservatory at the age of eight and currently works there. He gave many recitals in Egypt and several European countries and in 1998, he was invited to perform as a soloist with the Redland Symphony Orchestra in the USA. His most recent was the Egyptian state Prize in Arts (2005).

***

The second half of the evening took the audience into a magical world of the Arabian Nights: Scheherazade, a symphonic suite composed in 1888 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), a Russian composer of the Romantic era and member of the The Mighty Handful also referred to as The Mighty Five.

Over 1001 nights, Sultana Scheherazade told tales to Sultan Schahriar. The composer walks us through four tales in four consecutive movements: The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship (Largo e Maestoso – Allegro non troppo), The Tale of the Kalendar Prince (Lento – Andante), The Young Prince and Princess (Andantino quasi Allegretto) and Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – Shipwreck on a Rock surmounted by a Bronze Warrior – Conclusion (Allegro molto).

Scheherazade is a unique blend of “Oriental flavours” and elements of Russian music. Not only is Scheherazade a composition regularly performed in concert halls but, due to its thematic material and subject, to which people relate, it remains a favourite of the Egyptian audience. Understandably, Scheherazade is one of the basic compositions performed every year by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.

This time, conducted by Hisham Gabr, the composition sparkled with a clear and distinctive vision of the conductor who transported the audience into a world of fantasy expressed through brilliant orchestration and many captivating solo lines. Korsakov’s bright orchestral colour, texture, and lively fantasy surfaced vividly under Gabr’s baton, testifying to the conductor’s profound understanding of the work and adequate preparation for it.

Korsakov’s symphonic suite stresses a number of solo instruments, starting with a gracefully seductive violin representing the voice of Scheherazade herself, often supported by gentle harp arpeggios. The solo played by Yasser El Serafi, the konzertmeister, gave a remarkable opening to the first movement. The same theme returns in each movement, each time introducing a new story.

However it is the second movement that carries the largest number of solos, staring with those for bassoon then oboe, and later also including flute and horn. The third movement was particularly well performed, with its orchestral smoothness delightfully appeasing the listeners’ senses. With all the emotions hidden in this movement coming to the surface, the orchestra managed to capture the very soul of Korsakov’s composition.

Korsakov’s masterpiece offers a large number of strong climaxes and an incredible richness of colour and harmony, which reach their peak in the fourth movement. All the vivid elements are by then combined into one powerful picture giving a huge emotional release offered by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. In the final closing bars the voice of Scheherazade comes back, soothing the audience as if promising them another story to be told the next day…

The ecstatic audience exploded into an intense ovation.

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