I think and I feel

Cairo Symphony Orchestra, photo by Sherif Sonbol

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

It was not the first time for Jiri Petrdlik to conduct the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. The Czech conductor’s first visit to Cairo, in June 2011, symbolised the meeting of two countries that had undergone revolution. Themed From the Czech Velvet Revolution to the Egyptian Youth Revolution, and presenting Bedrich Smetana’s Ma vlast (My Fatherland), the concert underlined the connection between the two uprisings. Petrdlik returned to Cairo in January 2012 to pay tribute to nature with works by Jean Sibelius, Claude Debussy and Beethoven’s Symphony no 6. Later still, he conducted two consecutive concerts, on 3 and 10 March.

Nor were the visits without purpose. Petrdlik is the newly appointed principal conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and according to the information from the Embassy of the Czech Republic, he is responsible for the orchestra’s artistic dossier until the end of this symphonic season (2011/ 2012); starting from next season (2012/2013), Petrdlik will be also the orchestra’s artistic director. On Saturday 3 March, under his baton, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra performed Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor, Farewell before moving onto the Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, topping the evening with Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (Fantastic Symphony).

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Haydn’s Symphony no 45, Farewell, is among the best lover compositions of concert goers. Few realize that the wit poured of this composition actually endangered the composer’s career with the court of the nobility. Back in 1772, the composer and the court’s orchestra spent a much longer time than expected at the Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy’s summer palace, and all the musicians couldn’t wait to go home. It is in the last movement that Haydn prepares a subtle message for the Prince. From lovely presto, he moves to adagio; and as the music continues, after a few bars, the first oboe and a horn player stop playing and leave the concert hall. Soon they are followed by bassoon, and other wind instrumentsÉ A few bars later, the strings start leaving too: the cellist, double bass player, even the violins. As the number of musicians diminishes, two muted violins are left playing the final notes. Though Haydn’s career remained safe and sound, today’s performances of this compositions follow the traditional retreat of the musicians.

From the 18th century classical era composer, the audience was transported to 20th century Bohemia, with Bohuslav Martinu’s Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra. Martinu (1890-1959) was a prolific Czech composer whose works include numerous ballets, operas, six symphonies, concertos, choral music, chamber compositions, string quartets, and sonatas. Martinu is regarded as a self-taught composer though he attended a few years of the Prague Conservatory from which he was expelled for indolence. He continued his musical education through self-discipline and close contact with other composers. Martinu left Prague early in his life; he lived in Paris before moving to the USA; by the end of his life he was living in Italy and Switzerland. Though his compositions carry a variety of influences, recurrent elements that characterise a them are rooted in Czech folk songs.

The concerto composed in 1955 is the work of a mature composer; it combines all the elements that contributed to the success of Martinu’s earlier compositions. The concerto depends on the oboist’s virtuosic technique and glowing textures from the orchestra. It also contains a prominent part for piano which was played by Mohamed Saleh. The reduced orchestra makes the colours sharper: strings successfully carried the listener through many passages despite the woodwinds missing significant edge, a fact especially evident in the last, vivacious movement of this charming concerto. Though the orchestra kept covering his phrases, Wessam Amin, the oboe soloist, faced the concerto adequately prepared.

The second part of the evening took the audience to one of the most emotional expressions of solitary despair in existence, emotions characteristic of the Romantic period in music but equally reflected in visual arts and literature where creators proclaimed and glorified their feelings. Fear, hope, happiness, anguish emanate from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, one of the 19th century’s greatest works. The symphony is a product of desire and infatuation, the composer’s musical love letter to an actress, Harriet Smithson, whom he eventually married in 1833 (and separated from seven years later). The five movements of the symphony are like cycles of human feeling where the woman he loves becomes a melody or idée fixe, as Berlioz called it, an inspiring fixed idea that he finds everywhere. The idée fixe emerges as a single melody after a few minutes of the first movement (Dreams-Passions); it surfaces again as a waltz in the second movement (A Ball); and returns by the end of the third movement (Scene at the Countryside) right before the thunder rumbles, leading to new astonishing developments.

First, three movements of the Symphonie Fantastique express early stages of infatuation entwined with melancholy and restless suffering. In the fourth movement (March to the Scaffold), hope is replaced with paranoia expressed by the composer’s funerary procession to the sound of a march that is at times wild and at times brilliant and solemn before the idée fixe reappears. The final movement (Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath) is a journey to the core of romanticism. We are at the witches’ sabbath witnessing the composer’s funeral. In the midst of monsters, sorcerers, ghosts and shadows, the idée fixe is heard again, as a clarinet; yet it is no longer soothing but grotesque, as if painfully mocking the whole situation.

The Symphonie Fantastique is a personal testimony of passion and obsession. As if challenging the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am”, Berlioz’s work becomes a loud proclamation of “I feel, therefore I am.” The composition carries a huge emotional and linear charge; though many details contribute to the arousing story and express the composer’s agony.

In order to allow its entire musical vocabulary to surface, the composition demands the same masterful qualities from both orchestra and conductor. All the emotional layering will sparkle when supported by emotions on the one hand and purely practical musical solutions implemented within the orchestra sections and individual instruments on the other. Definitely, the material is a great challenge but not unattainable. The Cairo Symphony Orchestra presented a number of interesting phrasings and unveiled a good dose of well captured musical elements. But the whole symphony was somehow sealed off in a safe zone, at times missing the clear contours and musical contrasts. An undeniable amount of good work would have turned into an unforgettable evening had the fine embroidery been underlined.

Petrdlik will be returning during this season and will continue his work as the principal conductor and artistic director in the upcoming season. With work and dedication, he still has many opportunities to present strong musical moments.

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