An isolated Christmas

On 17 December, the Cairo Opera House Main Hall invited the audience to the annual Christmas Concert of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra with the Cairo Opera Company and the Cairo Celebration Choir

Published on Sunday 25 Dec 2011 in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly

“In Europe and North America, there is a tradition of holiday music, both sacred and secular, that is performed at Christmas time. Many of these songs have attained worldwide popularity and are sung yearly in festive gatherings.”

Thus Azza Madian in the programme notes of the concert, which took place at the Cairo Opera House last Saturday: the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nayer Nagui, was joined by the soloists of the Cairo Opera Company and guest soloists as well as the Cairo Celebration Choir for their yearly Christmas Concert.

No need to remind you that this year the Christmas celebrations are taking place under very difficult social-political circumstances; and the mood is far from festive. On the day of the concert, serious clashes between the army and protesters outside the Cabinet building on Qasr Al-Aini Street, downtown Cairo, continued. Ironically but sadly, 17 December also marks the first death anniversary of the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, a young vendor who torched himself to death in protest of the confiscation of his wares and humiliation by the local authorities of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi’s suicide was one of the major sparks of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring.

Though a few musicians decided to cancel their Christmas concerts this year, finding it “improper” to celebrate, many kept their plans unchanged. Understandably, it is impossible to turn a blind eye to all the atrocities now happening in Egypt; one may even question the validity of holding any artistic events at all. The situation is not easy and raises many questions, yet until its complexity is addressed, arts and culture can expect to suffer.

Taking into consideration the fears expressed by artists and audiences alike — something I have already mentioned on these pages — it is important to relate once again to values in which many people believe and to protect them from being either marginalised or erased by new realities. The intangible component of art is expressed in maintaining a tradition; without such traditions no country can hold together the unity and ideology of its people. For many years, in Egypt, the Christmas concert has been one such tradition; all Christians and a large number of the Muslim community join the seasonal celebrations. The continuing presence of that tradition and of music is, I feel, an important part of moving forward.

Many audience members choose not to attend any cultural events. Nevertheless, the annual Christmas concert at the Cairo Symphony Orchestra was fully sold out within a few hours of the opening of the ticket office. On 17 December the full hall bore testimony to the need of the audience to cherish their traditions and their readiness to reconnect. It is in the hands of musicians and musical institutions to capitalize on that interest and come up with suitable programmes to attract their audience.

Christmas brings a sense of warmth, naturally. The annual Christmas Concert of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra with the Cairo Opera Company and the Cairo Celebration Choir first saw the light in 2000, when Sobhi Bedair, Egyptian tenor and then director of the Cairo Opera Company, asked Nayer Nagui to form a choir to join the orchestra and the opera soloists for Christmas celebrations. The idea gave birth to the Cairo Celebration Choir (CCC), which soon grew to 120 members connected to churches, cultural centres, musical academies and societies around Cairo. The first concert, in 2000, was conducted by the Bulgarian Ivan Filev and included many Christmas songs and carols, with many arranged for the orchestra by Nayer Nagui. Starting in 2001, Christmas concerts have been conducted by Nagui.

For the Cairo Celebration Choir, this year’s celebrations are no less difficult than they are for anyone else in the audience. This year, the choir lost one of its members: on 13 May, Ramy Fakhry, a 27-year-old electrical engineer, was shot three times from behind by the Egyptian Army when he found himself caught in a military-rug traffickers shootout. Many questions rose around Fahkry’s death; hopefully one day they will be answered. Ramy sang with the CCC in a number of previous Christmas celebrations as well as other concerts held by the choir.

On 17 December 2011, the concert opened with Nagui asking the audience for minute of silence for the martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution and ongoing struggles. Later, by the end of the concert, Nagui has also added I Belie ve (with music by Eric Levy), performed by soprano Jacqueline Rafik and tenor Sobhi Bidair, and particularly well known from the Sobhi and Friends concerts. “One day I’ll hear the laugh of children in a world where war has been banned” — the lyrics stress mutual understanding, love and devotion.

Over the years, the Cairo Opera Company performed dozens of songs from the Christmas repertoire. There are songs which became the staples of some soloists: soprano Iman Mostafa always returns to Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria ; Jacqueline Rafik proves successful again and again in Holiday Pops ; the jazzed-up The Christmas Song is baritone Elhamy Amin’s specialty, while Jesu Bambino is sung by bass-baritone Reda El-Wakil and Carols of the Bells by Mona Rafla. Though those and a number of other returning songs are mastered by the singers, exploring the new repertoire is a necessary change.

Soloists are mostly accompanied by the Cairo Celebration Choir, while some songs and carols are for the choir only: The First Noel, for example. The choir closed the evening with a popular 16th-century English carol, We wish you a Merry Christmas.

For several years in a row, Christmas celebrations by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Cairo Opera Company and Cairo Celebration Choir were performed more than once, often offering an additional matinee concert. They never failed to be fully sold out and never failed to leave the audience looking forward to next year. In 2010 and this year, however, the concert was performed only one time. This is definitely a troubling decision for many audience members. Judging by the full house and strong ovations, there is an obvious need for music. There is also need for the Cairo Opera House to look at the scene, at the audience, to understand its own cultural positioning and obligations under the current circumstances and suggest a convincing plan of reaching out with their values to the audience.

The Christmas Concert added some of warmth to the scene, but it also proved that even more warmth is needed — and it can be provided, if the well-thought-of strategies are translated into wisely tailored events.

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