Sacred sounds: On Mozart’s Requiem in Cairo

Mozart’s Requiem was performed in Cairo on two consecutive evenings, 12 and 13 May.

Among the core values of music is its power to  transform a metaphysical idea into sound, decoding the spirit of sacredness, and making the intangible audible. To paraphrase the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, its  transcendental element allows it to move beyond the art, and even non-musical people feel a breeze from the other world. It replenishes our souls with layers of emotion, fusing reality with the psuche.

Mozart’s Requiem in D minor is one among hundreds of compositions that capture the spirit of the divine, enshrining liturgical rituals. And that is what the Cairo audience was treated to on 12 and 13 May at the Ewart Hall of the Tahrir Cultural Centre, and the German Protestant Church, respectively.

In an evening entitled “Mozart the Child, Mozart the Man,” the Cairo Choral Society and the Cairo Festival Orchestra conducted by Veronica Del Puerto Bievz performed not only the Requiem in D minor (composed when Mozart was 35) but also Symphony no. 1 in E flat major (composed when he was an eight-year-old child prodigy), the Symphony no. 25 in G minor (composed when he was 17). A three-movement symphony sparkling with innocence leads to a more complex four-movement symphony and ends with the 18th-century masterpiece: the composer’s great Roman Catholic mass for the dead.

Listening to Mozart in Egypt is no daily routine, especially not the Requiem, and what made the evening even more interesting is the conjunction of professional musicians of the Cairo Festival Orchestra – guest-conductor from Cuba, Veronika Del Puerto Bievz, and soloists Dina Iskander (soprano), Jolie Faizy (mezzo soprano), Hisham El Guindy (tenor) and Reda El Wakil (baritone) – with the “professional amateurs” of the Cairo Choral Society, which had been on hiatus for two years because of the pandemic.

The Cairo Choral Society is an entity operating under the American University in Cairo (AUC) Performing and Visual Arts Department. Established in 1983 by the late musician and music educator Larry P. Catlin, over the past 35 years it has performed numerous grand works such as Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Mozart’s Coronation Mass, Schubert’s Stabat Mater, Dvorak’s Mass in D, as well as works by Kodaly, Britten, Williams, Beethoven, Rossini, Handel and Puccini, among others, at numerous venues in Cairo.

But performing Mozart is a responsibility that goes beyond simply creating a good musical vocabulary. The centuries of symphonic, chamber and operatic halls and churches filled with his music build up expectations and set the bar extremely high. His music and the way it is performed continues to be dissected in all possible ways, with critics basing their judgements on a multitude of references they choose, be they education and taste, cultural and geographical placement, or specific qualities of performers and ensembles.

Thinking about Mozart in Cairo, and especially this concert, it is hard to position myself in the experience. In the first concert that I attended (at the Tahrir Cultural Centre, 12 May), both symphonies performed in the first half of the evening definitely created a pleasant impression introducing us to two different colours of the composer. The innocence of the wunderkind and his 1st Symphony and the emotional veering of the teenager who composed the 25th are both a joy to listen to. However, the lack of sufficient rehearsals obviously took its toll on the performance. The occasional hiccups in the musical balance between the sections and pitfalls of the brass section took away from the works’ fluidity. Luckily, concertmaster Ahmed Mounib and principal second violin Khaled Saleh did much to cement the strings delivery.

But the second half of the evening is more important. The hero of the evening was definitely Mozart himself, whereas the personal keeps being fused with universal, where spirituality meets the reality of death, and religious music remains strong in a new secular age. Here we see the man on his death bed, composing his own funeral mass (as many believe) on an anonymous commission, while reaching out to universal values of spirituality, placing life against death.

When listening to Mozart, we not only hear music, we also find ourselves in the presence of an artistic translation of the times embedded in emotions and the souls of people who lived, loved, believed in higher values, experienced joys and pains, struggled through their days. The beautiful parts of Mozart’s Requiem – some finished, others only sketched – have delighted countless of generations who fused the mass to many famous mourning ceremonies, including the funerals of Beethoven, Chopin, Schiller and Goethe. On the other hand, today’s listeners who decide to attend the Requiem, come with a huge expectations based on their previous acquaintance with the work. It is hard to satisfy all musical tastes and only perfection of delivery can appease the wide spectrum of the listeners.

Performing Mozart is a responsibility indeed, one that was well met by the choir in many parts of Requiem; it was obvious that the choir had exerted enormous effort to bring this masterpiece to the audience after two years of the creative stagnation. No doubt, the most refined ears would have expected stronger skills pointing to a number of musical inconsistencies, yet the choir’s experience and history helped it instil a lot of emotions into Mozart’s work. Overall, the Cairo Choral Society managed to capture our attention in their warm texture infused to Kyrie, Dies Irae, Rex Tremendae, and all the way to the final Agnus Dei where the strings give the final segment a captivating hue.

But Requiem is also about the voices that walk us through the text of the funeral mass. The listeners were treated to four professional singers with each having a rich portfolio of achievements in the Egyptian classical music scene. The warmth of Jolie Faizy’s mezzo and Reda El Wakil’s baritone contrasted with the bright soprano of Dina Iskander and the slightly ringing tenor of Hisham El Guindy. Here again, one would have liked the soloists to benefit from a more rehearsals, which could have helped them add a glowing charge to their professional delivery.

All the way through, the details forming Requiem’s captivating textures were controlled by the conductor Veronika Del Puerto Bievz. A Cuba-born orchestral conductor and music professor, she already had some experience working with the Egyptian musicians. Following her conducting and academic career in Cuba, since 2016 Del Puerto Bievz collaborated with the Cairo Opera House and it’s A Capella choir as well as the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. She also worked with the Cairo Celebration Choir and as Adjunct Faculty at the American University in Cairo.

The performance was an important step for all parties involved and a much needed refreshment for the Cairo audience. Requiem as performed on 12 and 13 May can be seen as an important revival of music after challenges set on it by the Covid-19 pandemic and the cultural shut down, which could serve as a social – rather than musical – explanation for all the minor glitches. But now we can hope for more collaborations between the Cairo Choral Society, the Cairo Festival Orchestra and the soloists in events that will offer stronger results. According to the programme notes, the Cairo Choral Society is now readying for Handel’s Messiah to be performed this autumn.


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