The perils of youth in the season’s opening of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra

An ecstatic audience filled the hall of the Cairo Opera: regulars thirsty for the classical music of which they had been deprived for the summer together with Japanese supporters of the guest conductor, Hirofumi Yoshida

Published on Thursday 22 Sep 2011 in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly

Cairo Symphony Orchestra new season 2011/2012 opened with a big bang on Saturday 17 September: three great works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Capriccio Italien, 1812 Overture, and Symphony no. 5 in E-Minor.

Capriccio Italien is a fantasy for orchestra composed in 1880. Influenced by Italian folk music, the composition is a combination of loosely linked melodies, lovely dance rhythms and tarantellas. It makes room for many captivating solos, played very well by the orchestra, which proved able to pull it together to the final bars.

Next came the 1812 Overture, composed in 1880: a cry of patriotism commemorating the victory of the Russian army over Napoleon in Moscow in September 1812. The overture includes nationalist illusions, some freely adopted by Tchaikovsky though they do not fit the historical reality: “God Save the Tsar!” was the Russian national anthem at the end of the 19th century but not in 1812; equally, La Marseillaise was banned by Napoleon in 1805 and was reinstalled as the French anthem in 1879.

The Overture stresses the heroic abilities of the Russian people. Musically speaking, the composition includes a number of fierce build ups followed by emotional releases, the power of whole sections underlined by breathtaking solos.

The long, blaring rundowns of the orchestra are equally thrilling; especially poignant is the one that comes in the middle, after the horn solo, when the orchestra rundown goes from violins to viola, then celli and double-bass, only to be drowned in sounds of tuba.

And the orchestra came in all its power. Not only did it have – unusually – 14 first violins, 12 celli and 8 double-basses, but each section of the orchestra stood lived up to all the challenges of the composition, with many soloists giving remarkable performance.

Tchaikovsky’s overture demands that the conductor works on the full gamut of elements, shaping the forte against the piano parts, the solos against their orchestral lining. The buildups must emerge from a well-prepared base, while emotional release is achieved when the orchestra is well directed.

And so was the case with the Capriccio Italien, and the Overture 1812; Yoshida relied on the skill and power of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, forgetting to underline the various colours contained in the composition. His excessive and – let us say very youthful earnest – energy kept pushing the orchestra to its limits, obscuring musical nuance. As such, the composition turned from a glorious painting into a fight of sounds, leaving the listener exhausted instead of impressed with the power that the orchestra produced.

The second half of the evening included Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E-Minor, which is one of the staples of concert repertoires. The Egyptian audience had listened to this symphony under the baton of Andreas Sporri in December 2009, and then conducted by Marcello Mottadelli in May this year.

The first movement opens with a theme played on clarinet and low strings, which gives a sense of calm before the more dynamic accents. The second movement is filled with colour and emotions which needed, here again, detailed work by the conductor. Yet, the number of climaxes brought back the imbalance felt at the beginning of the concert. The third movement, for its part, is a waltz; while the fourth, the closing movement, communicates a sense of triumph.

In the programme notes, Azza Madian cites that the symphony is a work in the “triumph-through-struggle tradition”. Madian refers to the concept of “a musical cleansing of the soul,” which characterizes this work as Tchaikovsky’s personal emotions poured into it. For Yoshida it was a very different struggle. Definitely better than the first half of the concert, a fair number of elements were relatively well managed here.

Yet, in the third and fourth movements, that constant pushing by the conductor challenged the tempo of the composition. Yoshida chose to take a horizontal look at the orchestra, omitting the detailed vertical broidery which he owed to both composition and orchestra.

Maybe this is the right moment to think about the role of a conductor. In The Art of Conducting, Jean Peccei quotes Joseph Rescigno, Artistic Director and Conductor of Montreal’s l’Orchestre Métropolitain and Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera: “there are standard gestures and baton movements that relate primarily to such technical matters as upbeats, downbeats, and beat patterns.

But even in these matters, there are choices: one may choose to beat each of the notes in a measure or more or fewer, for example, to help an orchestra over a difficult passage or to achieve a subtle change in mood.”

Theory books provide important technical directions to the conductors, yet the art of conducting depends on the mental link between the conductor and the orchestra. Peccei notes that “there is another aspect to the conductor’s art, something far harder to pin down and describe. That is their ability to communicate their interpretation… Force of character. Charisma. Total conviction that what they are doing is right.” He notices a particular force in the eyes of great conductors such as the Hungarian-British Sir Georg Solti, the Austrian Herbert von Karajan and the Italian Arturo Toscanini.

Eyes, skills, gestures, posture or charisma; whatever the primary force of the art of conducting is, the main duty remains the same and that is the connection between the conductor and the orchestra (in the symphonic concerts) or between the conductor on the one hand and the singers as well as the orchestra on the other hand (in the operatic performances).

Unfortunately, many young or inexperienced conductors add a personal show for the audience.

As such a big part of Hirofumi Yoshida’s energy spilled, alas, onto the audience side rather than being directed to the orchestra. Yoshida is very young, obviously very passionate, but he often loses control of his posture or gestures. At the same time, he seemed to be fighting with rather than shaping the music.

While it is true that many problems of the first half were toned down in the symphony, the musical and tempo imbalance remained a problem.

The opening concert of the season needs to be treated with special care. Its large audience will include the full array of classical music regulars, many of whom have the most refined tastes. It was sad to listen to knowledgeable audience members comparing the first half of the concert to “a circus performance” or “the conductor’s expressive dance show.” Harsh though they were, such comments conveyed an element of truth.

The bulk of a conductor’s work is during rehearsals, but his vision is transferred in the concert. For musical values to emerge, Yoshida needs to contain his youthful enthusiasm and direct it towards clearer expression.

Yoshida’s resume stresses his experience in operatic repertoire so it is possible that the Cairo Symphony Orchestra concert was among his very first approaches to symphonic music. There is always a first time, as they say. A pity however it had to happen on the season’s opening of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.

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