Egyptian Sinfonietta: a new ambition of the Egyptian Philharmonic Society

Ahmed El-Saedi during rehearsal with the Egyptian Sinfonietta (photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Ahmed El-Saedi during rehearsal with the Egyptian Sinfonietta (photo: Sherif Sonbol)

On Sunday 9 December the Egyptian Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra operating under the Egyptian Philharmonic Society (EPS), will give its inaugural concert – the first in a series of six, performed each month this season.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

The Egyptian Sinfonietta that will give its inaugural concert on Sunday 9 December is the child of the Egyptian Philharmonic Society (EPS); it represents an expanded Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra formation and as such it can offer a much larger repertoire.

Founded in 2004 by conductor Ahmed El-Saedi, the Egyptian Philharmonic Society is an NGO aiming to contribute to the musical life of Egypt outside governmental institutions. In short, as explained on the EPS web site, its main goal is to “create and expand a new public for classical music in Egypt.” The Society consists of the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonic String Quartet, both launched together with the society, in addition to the newly formed Egyptian Sinfonietta. Apart from regular concerts, the EPS also organises many musical activities reflecting its main mission.

On the other hand, the EPS represents one of the many musical journeys of El-Saedi. It is worth recalling that El-Saedi was the Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor (1991-1993), and then principal conductor and artistic director (1993-2003), years during which the orchestra was lifted to the highest artistic ranks and its tours were well received by international audiences. In 1996, the Cairo Symphony performed at the Berliner Philharmonic Hall, in Vienna and Paris. Conducted by El-Saedi, the orchestra continued its international tours in the following years, performing in many cities across France, Germany, Croatia, etc.

Conducted by El-Saedi, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra recorded six Beethoven symphonies. Moreover, under his management, it initiated many valuable projects. Apart from the standard repertoire elements that helped the orchestra and the audiences develop with many rarely performed compositions, the orchestra was working on its outreach to the audience of all ages and musical experiences. Many still remember “Music for the Whole Family” on Friday afternoons, and concerts tailored to the youngest listeners.

Though some may point to the few conflicts in which El-Saedi was trapped, and some of them occasionally stained his career, one has to recognise his knowledge and weight; one cannot deny all the artistic efforts, skill and achievements that he contributed to the Egyptian music scene as a whole. Equally, El-Saedi’s perseverance and unshakable dedication to music per se, has us all raising our chapeaux unreservedly.

It was in the same spirit of outreach that El-Saedi decided to manage the Egyptian Philharmonic Society.

“When we began our first season in 2005, the orchestra’s activities had a small scale; we performed mainly in the Ewart Memorial Hall at the American University in Cairo and at El-Sawy Culturewheel,” explains El-Saedi. The experience of the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra brings to mind years when, right after his return from Vienna to Egypt, El-Saedi formed the Egyptian Chamber Orchestra at the Cairo Conservatory, performing all across Cairo at such venues as the Goethe Institute, the Cairo Opera House and the American University of Cairo, between 1989 and 1996.

By 1996, however, El-Saedi was already heading the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, into which he poured all his musical and managerial ideas. It seems that though independent of the governmental backbone, with the Egyptian Philharmonic Society El-Saedi continues his rich artistic journey, displaying the same perseverance and the firm belief that music is an essential part of cultural and personal development.

In its first season, 2005-2006, the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra held 11 concerts; two years later, there were over double that number; concerts expanded to new venues in Cairo and Alexandria. Though starting slowly, from the very first days, the Society aimed to cover a wide range of musical offerings that would include concerts, educational activities, exchanges, competitions etc. As such, not long after its creation, the Society attracted the interest of sponsors and art supporters – among them CIB, Orascom Development and several others – though, as El-Saedi indicates, this does not always come easily; the management must keep looking for support in order to continue with its mission.

“The facilities one has within the independent musical formation differ from those offered under the umbrella of the Cairo Opera House. It is a different kind of a challenge,” El-Saedi clarifies, smiling. Despite those challenges, the Egyptian Sinfonietta proves to be an important new step in the growth of the Egyptian Philharmonic Society.

But apart from regular concerts, in 2008, partnering with the Austrian Cultural Forum, and financed by the European Union, the EPS’s orchestra worked on implementing a dynamic project entitled “The Orchestra a Guest in Schools,” which consisted of 20 concerts for school children. El-Saedi recalls great interest in those concerts, pointing in particular to one held at the Fayoum Cultural Palace (130 km South-West Cairo): “Young listeners remained extremely attentive throughout the concert, even though to most of them – if not all – this genre of music was completely new.”

As part of its educational activities aiming to discover and encourage new musical talent and encourage private music education, in 2005 — and in cooperation with the Austrian Cultural Forum — EPS established El-Sakia Music Competition for Piano and Violin. Targeting musicians aged six-18 who were studying music as an extra-curricular activity, the competition was held annually at El-Sawy Culturewheel and other locations, and was interrupted by the 2011 revolution.

“Many years ago, the Cairo Conservatory used to offer a separate curriculum designed for children enrolled in regular schools and taking private music lessons. The students knew that they could learn music – at their ease, privately – and yet be guided by a renowned institution. When the Conservatory abandoned this practice, the whole music education tumbled. A real pity, since in many European cities, music institutions offer special programmes and competitions to students from other schools and as such the whole cultural upbringing takes on a different shape,” El-Saedi explains, pointing to Vienna as an example of a city of only two million inhabitants with 17 music schools offering a variety of programmes tailored to children enrolled in regular education system. Understandably, all of these schools are strongly supported by the Austrian government. The competition organised by the Society might be a drop in the ocean of needs in Egypt, but it gave hope.

It is also through the Egyptian Philharmonic Society that El-Saedi develops cooperation with renowned international soloists and orchestras; many such have come to perform with the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. Under the Cairo Opera House umbrella and supported by the EPS, the Prague Chamber Orchestra, conducted by El-Saedi with Laura Mikkola on piano, it gave two concerts in Egypt last November. “The Prague Chamber Orchestra’s concert was an inauguration event for EPS’s activities this season,” El-Saedi explains. “Formation of the Egyptian Sinfonietta that will give its inaugural concert on 9 December is only one of a few projects that EPS will be working on in the upcoming months.”

The Society’s future plans include involvement in a Baroque opera, Handel’s Julius Caesar, planned for May 2013. Being a production of the Cairo Opera House, the EPS will support the project. Directed by Gusavo Tambiascio, the opera will include contributions from international soloists as well as the US-based Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam.

In June 2013, the Egyptian Sinfonietta will go to Finland to take part in the Iitti Music Festival (11-16 June), held in the village of Iitti and focusing primarily on chamber music. “It will be an even bigger challenge. For the first time we will travel with over 30 musicians and our programme will include symphonies. We plan to expand the visit to Finland with a tour through Austria, Slovakia and Hungary,” El-Saedi explains, adding that the last tour of the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, in 2011, consisted of 23 string musicians and covered five European countries: Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Germany. “Our June tour is very important for the Philharmonic Society, for the orchestra and for Egypt. We will have a chance to show another face of the country that is going through a lot of political changes to shed a light on the music and culture scene.”

Drifting from the EPS, El-Saedi will also conduct the Cairo Symphony Orchestra in this year’s New Year concert, promising a programme consisting of many captivating though little known compositions to the Egyptian audiences and a lot of special attractions.

In the meantime, the Egyptian Sinfonietta will give its first concert in Egypt, on Sunday 9 December, with works by W.A. Mozart and soloist Abdel Hamid El Showeikh. Within the same series, in February, the Sinfonietta will return with Valentine’s spirit and a lighter programme: compositions by Manuel de Falla and Astor Piazzolla, with a guitarist from Moscow and Ines Abdel Dayem on the flute. The March concert will include Beethoven’s concerto in D major (composed originally for violin but revised by the composer for piano). “This is possibly the first time that this concerto is performed in Egypt. The soloist will be the renowned Lebanese pianist Abdel-Raman Al-Basha,” El Saedi adds.

With a family based in Austria, El-Saedi operates from Egypt. With a lot on his plate he stresses the importance of developing musical activities in the country. “During Mubarak’s time, music was a decoration embellishing the regime; today it is a core component that will help culture to survive. As musicians, we have an obligation to preserve music and culture in their best image. As much as many artists oppose radical religious trends, their voices will be heard through implementing solid actions along with insistence on cultural education – this is the only tool of success for any modern civil society.”

El-Saedi explains that, for sponsors, it is important to realise that there is a message that needs to be communicated through musical and cultural activities. “Today, a music concert is not longer a shining advertisement; it is also a duty. On the other hand, radical Islamists do not realise how many values they miss and how much the culture can enrich their lives, regardless of religious convictions.” El-Saedi tries to remain optimistic, believing that the injustices happening towards the nation and its culture cannot continue on the generation level. The future will yet reveal the cultural status of Egypt, yet El-Saedi’s Egyptian Philharmonic Society and his many projects seem to be ready to face the challenge.

 

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