Beyond Spirituality: Cairo Celebration Choir perform Beethoven’s Mass in C

The Cairo Celebration Choir gave Egypt’s premiere of Beethoven’s Mass in C major at All Saints Cathedral on 16 June, followed by the same performance at the Basilique Cathedrale on 17 June

Ati Metwaly , Friday 24 Jun 2016


Founded in 2000, and over 100 members strong, the Cairo Celebration Choir (CCC) is definitely a shining star in Egypt’s cultural firmament.

Even if this sounds clichéd, in the case of this choir, it remains the most accurate description of a creative body that adds an undeniable artistic weight to the local music scene.

It’s a 16-year-old story, testament to the unconditional passion of the choir’s founder and sole creator, Egyptian conductor Nayer Nagui, and the hard work invested by each artistic and administrative member of the ensemble.

Enough to point to the remarkable shift that took place in those years, as the choir moved from a group of dedicated amateur singers who accompanied the annual Christmas Concert organised at the Cairo Opera House (where they are joined by the Cairo Opera Orchestra and soloists from the Cairo Opera Company) to performing advanced choral works.

One such event took place on Thursday 16 June, when the CCC gave Egypt’s premiere of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass for soloists, chorus and orchestra in C major, Op. 86 at the All Saints Cathedral. The event which included yet another Egypt premiere – of Zur Namensfeier overture in C major, Op. 115 – was repeated in Basilique Cathédrale on 17 June.

The choir was joined by four soloists: soprano Mona Rafla, mezzo soprano Jolie Faizy, tenor Amr Medhat and bass baritone Reda El-Wakil, and an orchestra. With Beethoven’s Mass in C Major Op. 86 the choir has carved its name into the annals of Egypt’s musical history.

Performing it in two of Cairo’s churches, what is more, added a unique flavour to the event.

Beethoven’s Mass in C is no mean feat. It is material that requires a high musical culture to embrace this fascinating and architectural work of art. It is easy to guess that the composition is attached to the Christian liturgy; however Beethoven’s rhetoric takes it into new musical dimensions and beyond the holy as such. The composer’s depth is expressed in the age he represents, all of whose complexity fed his reading of the text.

While spirituality was the trigger for the commissioner to approach Beethoven, what the composer created reaches beyond the spiritual functioning of the mass. Beethoven’s treatment of liturgical sanctity emerges from his individuality as creator and human, and reflects the composer’s musical and emotional needs rather than the attempt to impress devotees with the kind of religious accuracy they were used to.

On a technical level, Beethoven refrains from tailoring the music around the words but rather gives voice to the dramaturgy that lies within the words. While the composer follows “musical prototypes” of his predecessors he infuses the work with new creative solutions, something that seemed too unconventional – or maybe too “modern” – for his contemporaries.

No wonder Prince Nikolaus Esterházy who commissioned the Mass was not satisfied. But regardless of this preliminary disappointment, the Mass in C was yet to be appreciated by the later critics, even if to date it is still not frequently performed.

The composition carries a beauty which, though a response to faith, remains independent of it. The work offers otherworldliness in a sense, an emotional charge that takes it to wide and splendid territories and feeds the listener’s mind and soul.

We meet the choir, the soloists and the orchestra as a single body that lives and breathes as one, sharing each segment of the composition. There are no long arias and no stars of the evening; no one shines above anyone, as all performers are an integral part of the grand musical architecture.

Throughout the whole work, the choir dominates over the instrumental parts whilst the soloists develop numerous musical dialogues between one another and with the choir. The Mass in C’s many charismatic moments add up to a continuum of magnificence. It is in this work that we find the rich textures that remind us of how small we are in front of music’s superiority; we hear captivating phrasings, powerful allegros, heart rending lyricism and filigree fugues that toy with our mind.

Cairo Celebration Choir

(Photo: Ramez Lebbad)

We could go on, endlessly describing the composition, and looking deep into its many layers. Yet no matter what we say, Beethoven’s Mass in C is a work that needs to be attended, experienced first hand as only then can any words written about it make sense, though they will also probably ring hollow in comparison to the composition’s beauty.

In this sense we should be grateful to the Cairo Celebration Choir for giving Cairo’s listeners the opportunity for this experience. If there is any reproach regarding the choice of composition, it is that it was performed only twice and during Ramadan, when many music followers shift their priorities and opt for traditionally scented evenings that are offered by the majority of cultural institutions during this month.

Though Christian listeners probably did not skip Beethoven’s Mass, had this event taken place at another time, it would have been attended by a wider group of listeners.

Cairo’s All Saints’ Cathedral, where I attended the performance, filled with a rather large crowd yet left a few seats empty. However, as Nayer Nagui has since revealed, the following day’s event at the Basilique Cathédrale saw an unprecedented audience turnout.

“The Basilique performance was very warm, partly because it is a Roman Catholic Church and Beethoven’s Mass fills the space in a natural way. Equally the audience was fully aware of the liturgical text and didn’t even need to follow it in the programme notes,” Nagui explains, adding that he did not expect such a crowd on a day that falls in the middle of Ramadan and at the weekend, “a time when the Christian community tends to relax outside Cairo.”

Let us underline the performance’s importance both as a premiere and a major development for the Cairo Celebration Choir on both the cultural and technical levels. As such, Beethoven’s Mass represents the cumulative work of one and a half decades during which, under Nagui’s artistic and logistical direction, the choir graduated from Christmas songs and carols to more complex and impressive music material.

Funding and sustaining a choir in Egypt – and in the world for that matter – is no easy task, especially when one operates in a country where the cultural choices of arts lovers and society at large do not necessarily prioritise Western classical music.

Artistically speaking, Nagui took the choir onto a thorough journey of musical education, the fruits of which the audiences can appreciate in the ensemble’s many performances at a variety of venues. Sixteen years later, the Cairo Celebration Choir has already explored many music schools, singing French work – with Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, as well as Italian – with Rossini’s La Petite Messe Solennelle, German – Schubert’s Stabat Mater, Latin-Spanish – works by Guastavino and touching on the English style with Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day.

At the same time, the choir also performs Aghani Bel Arabi, a project that includes famous Egyptian choral works by Sayed Darwish and Gamal Abdel-Reheim arranged by Nagui. Apart from frequent performances in Egypt, the choir has made a few international appearances, in Morocco and France, among other tour events. In 2012, it won the Silver Level Diploma in the Czech Republic’s Prague Voices 2012 Festival.

Nagui decided to raise the choir’s bar even higher last year when the then 15-year-old ensemble gave Egypt’s premiere of one of Mozart’s most celebrated choral works, The Great Mass in C minor.

Now, with Beethoven’s Mass in C, the choir dealt with yet another challenge. To underscore all the details, to navigate through musical depths, Beethoven’s understanding of religious dramaturgy, to extract all the cultural connotations expressed through the many thick layers of the composer’s intellect, emotions and skills, is not easy. Then, in this huge architecture, comes a myriad details and relations connecting them.

There were many beautiful moments in the performance, and the listeners were offered a number of inspiring shades of Beethoven’s musical personality. And even if several details were challenged, whether by the Beethoven’s demanding, indeed almost scary splendour or by the All Saints’ Church’s acoustics working against the details, we can still look at this performance as an important step in the Cairo Celebration Choir’s development and an even more important imprint on Egypt’s classical music history.

Nagui says that the setting of the Basilique helped balance the sound delivery making all details clearer and allowing the allegros to benefit from an ore of far more suitable acoustics. Nagui also reveals that he will keep raising the bar though for the time being he is not able to specify what the choir will work on next.

“Probably for some time, we will focus on the material that is soaked in music classicism. It is an important step in building the repertoire, skill and culture of the choir. It is the backbone,” he clarifies.

With the choir’s ambitions, Nagui’s direction and speed of development, in a few years time, the Cairo Celebration Choir should have a great new portfolio. This is when going back to Beethoven’s Mass in C will become an even more fulfilling experience, backed by other experiences and choral discoveries.

As the choir continues to develop, in the meantime, in July it will perform at the 9th World Choir Games in Sochi, Russia. According to the event’s web site, the World Choir Games “are an international choir festival taking place every two years on different continents. The event is based on the Olympic ideals, which aim to peacefully unify people and nations connected by song in a fair competition. Unrelated to artistic levels, this approach challenges personality and team spirit likewise.”

This year this huge international event will bring together dozens of choirs from 80 countries.

Nagui underlines that, for the Cairo Celebration Choir, this will be the first 35-member journey, travelling in such a big group having been made possible with support from Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, Naguib Sawiris, Media-Arts for Development (MADEV) as well as BTM, who offered costumes for the choir. In Sochi, the choir will perform one of their iconic repertoire elements, Aghani Bel Arabi.

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