Mohamed Shams is among the brightest stars of his generation. The pianist played recently at the Cairo Opera House and is now preparing for his debut recital at the New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall
Mozart mania was a feature of 2006, which marked the composer’s 250th anniversary. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Arts Centre, then headed by Sherif Mohie El-Din, released a double CD of Mozart music performed by the BA Chamber Orchestra conducted by Al-Din, the Cairo Celebration Choir led by Nayer Nagui and a number of soloists.
Among the selections on the CD is one four-minute work that stands out not only for the choice of the music but also for the clarity and power of the performance: the first movement of Piano Sonata in C major KV 545 — Sonata semplice, or “For beginners” as Mozart called it — performed by Mohamed Shams.
I regularly attended Shams’ concerts, which he has never stopped giving in Egypt despite his studies and commitments abroad. Among his remarkable performances in Cairo were those at the Cairo Opera House and Manasterly Palace. He played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, accompanied by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra at the Cairo Opera and in 2011, the Manasterly’s programme was filled with Liszt, including Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Sonata in B minor. More recently, he performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26, again at the Cairo Opera.
In April, Shams will make his debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall. He reveals that he will perform a composition by an Egyptian composer, alongside works by Ravel, Beethoven and Chopin.
When all is said and done, he agrees that being an Egyptian classical musician can be an asset on the international scene.
“I suppose it raises some curiosity from the audience,” Shams tells us. “The musical field in the United States is full of artists from Asia, but an Egyptian playing classical music is definitely unusual, something a bit exotic.”
Observing Shams’s growth, on the technical and musical levels, I was prompted, once again, to attend his most recent Cairo concert, on 10 January, when he played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Eddy Marcano. The concerto was set between two works by Tchaikovsky, in the second half of the evening: March Slave, Op. 31, and Symphony No. 5 in E minor. We were not disappointed.
Within Egypt’s music scene, Shams is among the brightest stars of his generation. Today, in his early thirties, he has had a long and challenging journey, working hard to win the scholarships and recognition he has received.
International critics have hailed him as “a deeply impressive pianist of tremendous flair and intellectual strength” and “a spectacular pianist.”
One of his siblings is also a talented musician: his sister, the soprano Taheya Shams El-Din, a member of the Cairo Opera Company.
“I began my journey with piano at the age of seven,” Shams explains. “In fact, my uncle, an amateur musician, had a piano at home and a small music library. I consider him my first piano teacher, the one who prepared me for the entry exams to the Cairo Conservatory at the Academy of Arts.”
Shams graduated with distinction in 2004. His resume reveals that even before then he had garnered recognition by winning, in 2000 and 2002, first prize at the Brevard Music Festival competition (USA), which led to an invitation to play with its orchestra, the Transylvania Symphony, in 2003. He also received a Fulbright grant to study for one year in Washington DC with Marilyn Neeley.
In 2008, Shams received a full scholarship to study in the Master’s Program at the Manhattan School of Music, and in 2011 another scholarship took him to the Master of Music program at the Royal Conservatoire of Music in Glasgow, Scotland.
Currently he is enrolled in the Artist Diploma Program at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
Shams has also participated in workshops and won competitions, including second prize at the 2013 Intercollegiate Beethoven Piano Competition in London. The pianist was also a featured artist on New York’s classical music radio station.
Stepping over the threshold from Egypt onto the international scene was not always easy. With Egypt not having many pianists, Shams’ unique skills shone at the Cairo Conservatory. Outside the country, however, his talent had to face a completely different musical reality.
“I found myself surrounded by many talented and technically flawless peers. I realised that talent is not enough and one has to work very hard to cope with the expectations and the competition,” he said.
“In Egypt I felt I was technically ready, but once I had travelled I realised the many elements I need to work on, whether in technique, musicality or repertoire.”
Moving beyond the Cairo Conservatory, Shams began discovering the many contemporary composers who are not often performed, if at all, in Egypt. He also discovered a different sound and began to abandon what he calls his “percussive approach,” gradually moving towards a more round sound.
It is the warm — at times, almost timid — texture of Shams’ sound that is probably his main trait. This quality can be poetic but can also compromise the edges of the musical colour palette. Shams’s technical abilities parallel his exploration of the shades, a process that seems particularly interesting in his interpretation of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4.
“This concerto has accompanied me through many stages of my life,” he said. “I played it in Egypt more than once, and I entered a number of international piano competitions with it. Each time I play this work, I discover something new in it.”
Shams infuses the work with the suppleness characteristic of his style, weaving poetry into many passages, particularly in the work’s second movement.
“The challenge of the second movement lies in its seeming simplicity. It is hard to make the audience appreciate its content,” Shams explains. “I guess I am always drawn to works that carry this unique element of spirituality, as is the case in Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov.”
The pianist stresses that by spirituality he does not mean religious notions but rather the ethereal and exquisite character of the composers.
“In the next period I might look more into the Romantic composers. However I am still at the stage of exploring a variety of contexts in many compositions. No matter how many years I’ve been playing a specific work, each time I go back to it, I find new meanings.”
Indeed, this is the natural course of the artistic development of a pianist. In his continuous search for meanings, Shams believes that a pianist needs to trust his feelings. He recounts how, a few years ago, he would have played a composition more naturally. Today, deeper layers of understanding form an important part of the musical equation.
This is probably a stage of Shams’s life when subtleness wants urgently to come to the fore. In Beethoven’s Concerto his sensitivity and technical mastery is translated into sophisticated and flattering phrases.
At the same time, the pianist prefers not to juggle the big contrasting colours, and instead looks deep into each layer, suffused in the smaller tints and shades, that in their turn become the source of his musical interpretations.
Shams does not plan to settle permanently in Egypt anytime soon; many international doors continue to open for him.
But thanks to his frequent visits, we will be able to continue to follow the artistic development of this remarkable, internationally accomplished, young pianist.
This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly