‘When you believe in what you’re doing, doors open,’ says pianist and arts manager Ahmed Abou-Zahra

Ahmed Abou-Zahra is one of Egypt’s most unique talents in the arts, being both an accomplished master pianist and a remarkable arts manager with scores of prestigious achievements

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

Having graduated from the Cairo Conservatory, pianist Ahmed Abou-Zahra continued his postgraduate studies in Germany. His pursuit of musical development involved earning five different diplomas, including the first ever piano duo diploma issued by the High School of Music in Germany. He also explored composition and chamber music and took conducting classes.

Abou-Zahra has performed with many world-renowned orchestras, entering a multitude of international piano competitions and receiving over 10 prizes. During his extended tours, Abou-Zahra’s determination to learn and explore new territory led him into an unexpected area: artistic management, which soon became his full-time job.

The first and as yet still minor managerial contribution Abou-Zahra made to the music field in Egypt was in 2000, when he helped to develop contacts with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which eventually performed at the Cairo Opera House. In the following years, Abou-Zahra was involved in organising many prestigious orchestra performances in Egypt: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from London twice; the Winterthur Orchestra from Switzerland in 2006; the French Colonne Orchestra in 2010.

Abou-Zahra has also brought many ballets and modern dance performances to Egypt: Momix, a performance of dancer-illusionists in Cairo was among Abou-Zahra’s initiatives. On the other hand, he helped Egyptian companies get exposure outside the country. On his initiative, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company as well as the Cairo Opera Orchestra performed in Mexico and Germany.

“It was my tour in China in 2003, where I gave 12 piano concerts, that gave me the first gimpse of how to organise big musical tours,” he says.

Though in time he started giving more time to arts management, entering deeply into the business aspect of this field, Abou-Zahra believes that his accumulated experience, combined with his background, helped him approach the management field with a different understanding.

“At the beginning I was doing it only for the sake of music, even if this meant that I had to invest my own money into the process,” he explains. The Cairo Opera House’s performances of Aida in the newly opened Opera House in Beijing (Peking) — the biggest in the history of China — brought him financial losses. But following Aida, in 2008, the Chinese Opera House staged Puccini’s Turandot at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall, an experience that lives on in the minds of music lovers even now.

“Though with Aida I lost a lot of money, I achieved one of my biggest dreams: to have this opera performed by Egyptian artists on a stage outside Egypt. The experience I gained, the contacts, and appreciation from the Chinese partners was priceless. The whole exchange was also very important to all the artists. Such experiences always expand the artists’ horizons, broaden their perspectives and encourage them to pursue new development channels.”

Several of Abou-Zahra’s business strategies might raise eyebrows among business-oriented people. However, he insists that his priority is always artistic value, and that the business element is only the means to an artistic end.

“I developed all the connections as a pianist. I always like to go a step further, to talk to people, to exchange ideas. When you believe in what you’re doing, many doors open. People recognise that you’re not there only for the business benefits but you really want to give something to the music field, to the artists and to audiences. Though the business part is important, the artistic side was always my priority.”

Abou-Zahra’s dynamism has gone beyond networking within Egypt’s musical field only; now, activities in arts management are consuming most of his time. On the other hand, through the years, he has developed a long list of partnerships, the strongest ones being in China, where Abou-Zahra has been working for a decade. Together with his Chinese partners, in one of the biggest business companies working in the arts in Asia, Abou-Zahra recently signed a new venture in Oman.

Today, Abou-Zahra’s network covers multiple international networks, from single performance to exchanges and tours; he juggles orchestras, ballets and opera productions. So far, in this season, he has nine major artistic projects on his agenda. Last March he brought the Egyptian musical production Praxa to the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, followed by Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella by the National Ballet of Ukraine, also staged in Oman.

“Oman has fantastic facilities, good management, good technicians, and a great audience. While everything that comes from Europe and the US is sold out immediately, Oman is still learning how to market productions coming from the Arab world.”

In parallel, Abou-Zahra is working on a big project that will be aligned with commemorations of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring); in 2013, the iconic composition will celebrate its centenary. Abou-Zahra’s work on those celebrations involves five different ballet companies, from Hong Kong, Sydney, Hamburg, Canada and the US. They will dance simultaneously, filmed and broadcast all around the world. “It is a crazy yet fascinating experience, involving many companies presenting the same choreography. This production will see the light in April 2013,” Abou-Zahra reveals, adding that further details are still in process. The production will be screened in over 100 countries, but unfortunately not in Egypt.

But while projects accumulate, and the more deeply Abou-Zahra is involved in the business side, the more difficult it is for him to keep up with his career as a pianist. “This is the challenge I am dealing with now as I am not willing to give up on piano. I still manage to disconnect, practice, discover new music and perform as a pianist.” Abou-Zahra adds that he has just completed two successful tours as a pianist, the most recent one in Mexico.

His unprecedented dynamism and positive attitude will live up to many challenges, and he does not seem worried about the financial struggle that artistic companies and cultural institutions face in Europe and the US at present. “The financial situation in Europe is not easy for the musical field while the Middle East and Gulf areas are becoming very receptive of classical music; they welcome a variety of music and dance productions coming from Europe.”

As an art manager, Abou-Zahra also faces great competition from large art promotion companies. The difference between many such companies and Abou-Zahra, however, is in his approach. His projects are direct reflections of what he believes in as an artist.

One of his artistic ideas aimed to bring music to Egypt’s schools. The project was inaugurated with a Colonne Orchestra concert tailored to children that took place in 2010, opening a rich programme of activities under the project’s theme “Music for education and education for music.”

“I have lots of plans and I am ready whenever Egypt is ready. I only need stability. When it happens I will be the first one to come back with all the initiatives and projects. Not much time can pass before I want to produce something that involves Egypt.”

Through the years, Abou-Zahra has brought many internationally renowned orchestras, ballets and operas to audiences in Egypt and worldwide. He has also learnt how different countries approach music and arts management, interacting with a multitude of people with different mentalities involved in the process. As his experience grows, he says that he realises that arts management is a combination of knowledge, artistic ideas, interpersonal and communication skills, along with business talent and great discipline.

“The arts manager has to know and feel the future of music or the arts scene in general. Artists are very enthusiastic but sometimes they need to find the correct timing for their ideas to be implemented.”

Remarkable vitality and a very particular understanding of the field has turned Ahmed Abou-Zahra into a rare gem indeed: an independent arts manager who, even as he crosses the globe and back, continues his personal journey as a pianist.

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