Missing grandeur: Cairo Symphony Orchestra opens new symphonic season

Cairo Symphony Orchestra, photo by Sherif Sonbol

On Saturday 15 September, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Petrdlik opened its 54th symphonic season. The concert included works by Stravinsky, Haydn and Schumann.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

Usually the openings of music season aim to make a grand impression on the audiences. Those impressions have been achieved through the well-tailored programming, staples of the concert halls or compositions particularly close to the  audience’s hearts, topped with an impeccable performance by orchestra and conductor.  There were several elements of grandeur on 8 September when the Cairo Opera House threw a grand Opening Night Gala initiating its artistic events. The Cairo Opera Orchestra, A Cappella Choir, Cairo Opera Company, a number of Arabic and religious music ensembles and the Cairo Opera Ballet Company all took part. In its turn, the Cairo Opera Company will open its new season with Verdi’s Aida on 21 September.

One would expect a grand and memorable opening of the season by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, too. On Saturday 15 September, the orchestra conducted by Jiri Petrdlik performed Igor Stravinsky’s Orchestral Suite from the ballet Pulcinella, Haydn’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra with soloist Jaroslav Halir and Robert Schumann’s Symphony no. 1 Spring. A number of concert goers may recall strong choices for openings in the past. A few concerts picked from past years testify to the strength and glory of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra at that time.

Season 2004-2005, for example, opened with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 Resurrection, conducted by Christoph Mueller. Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 conducted by Steven Lloyd opened the 2006-2007 season. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andreas Sporri and joined by Cairo Opera Company soloists (Mona Rafla, Sobhi Bidair and Mostafa Mohamed) gave strong accents to 2007-2008 season’s opening.

For concert regulars those are probably the most memorable evenings of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. Equally significant works served as openings during two consecutive seasons: Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World, opening the 2008-2009 season, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade Symphonic Suite performed during 2009-2010 season opening. At this time however Marcello Mottadelli became the orchestra’s principal conductor and those grand and sparkling works, From the New World and Scheherazade, did not glow brightly enough under his baton. The following two seasons omitted large or significant openings of the symphonic seasons.

Taking that into account it was rather strange that the 54th season, which opened on 15 September, included two compositions for small orchestra: Stravinsky’s Orchestral Suite from the ballet Pulcinella andHaydn’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra. Not to forget that this concert is also the first by Jiri Petrdlik, the newly appointed Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.

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Pulcinella‘s Orchestral Suite, which Stravinsky described as both a “discovery of the past” and “a look in the mirror”, is the composer’s personalise neo-classical look into the music of the 18th century, particularly Pergolesi. The composition consists of many sparkling details, true embroidery which needed more work to come to the surface.

In its turn Haydn’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in E-flat Major is one of the most popular works for trumpet. A pity that it is not performed frequently in Cairo. Accordingly it was a pleasure to listen to this composition, especially that the Czech soloist Jaroslav Halir has a very proper timbre for works of this period. In some parts he seemed in a hurry, running a little ahead of the orchestra, which might be an indication that he was uncomfortable with the speed of the music.

Following Stravinsky and Haydn, the orchestra performed Schumann’s Symphony no 1 Spring. Inspired by the composer’s spring love and long-awaited marriage to Clara Wieck, the symphony is no doubt one of the cheerful works by this great Romantic although it is very rarely performed in concert halls, overshadowed by the composer’s Symphony No. 3Rhenishin E-flat Major and his Symphony No. 4in D minor. Symphony No. 1 can be included in the yearly programming, but it still does not make for a grand opening of the national symphony orchestra.

In Schumann’s symphony Petrdlik seemed to have fallen into the same trap as Dvorak’s Stabat Mater under his baton, back in April 2012. The lack or sometimes the absence of proper nuances that was replaced by one loud continuum reduced the effect of the lyricism of this very particular work.

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Born in 1977, Petrdlik is a graduate of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in 2005; prior to that, between 1995 and 2000, he studied conducting at Prague Conservatoire under professors H. Farkac, M. Kosler and M. Nemcova. According to the programme notes, Petrdlik’s symphonic appearances include cooperation with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Teplice Philharmonic Orchestra, the Ceske Budejovice Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra and many others. Petrdlik’s accomplishments also include a few concerts outside the Czech Republic and participation in a few international music festivals.

The long list in the repertoire enumerated on Jiri Petrdlik’s web site points to an enormous number of classical works including “complete orchestral works,” many of them by major composers and including major large-scale compositions. It turns into an abundant enumeration of over 70 composers and endless compositions. It would be interesting to clarify if this overwhelming list testify to Petrdlik’s conducting potential or were works already performed by renowned orchestras which he joined. Nevertheless, the impressive list includes many compositions that could make for a grand opening of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s 54th season.

As principal conductor, Petrdlik will conduct the Cairo Symphony Orchestra once again in September with a Mozart programme. According to the newly released programme at the Cairo Symphony Orchestra web site, Petrdlik will conduct one concert in October and another in December.

He will return with a few concerts before season’s end.

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