By Maurice Chammah
On Saturday evening, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra began their regular season concert with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to The Impresario. Conductor Andreas Spörri led the orchestra through a short, light overture in C Major, which Mozart originally wrote to introduce a comic opera. The symphony sounded crisp and conservative, holding fast to the restrained buoyancy of the original that would not have sounded out of place in Mozart’s 18th century Austria. Spörri guided the notes up into the air like balloons of many colors that charm before they float away with the final cadence.
The orchestra’s concertmaster, Yasser El Serafi, then took the stage for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Tchaikovsky lived a hundred years after Mozart, in the colder, heavier climate of the Russian Empire. His later work is now seen as the epitome of the Romantic era, and although critics often hated his work, audiences loved it then — and now — for its emotional directness and sweeping drama. Although his violin concerto is canonical in the Western classical repertoire, it always feels appropriate to hear grand, emotional music of any origin in Egypt this year, where little is said or done and the day’s events are so often grave in their consequences.
El Serafi, who has performed as a soloist with the symphony for over 20 years, has studied in France and the US. He has performed in Paris, Rome and Tokyo, and has conducted orchestras as well. Wearing a simple black shirt, he began the uniquely challenging piece hesitantly, never quite commanding the orchestra he often leads as concertmaster.
As a violinist myself, I was empathetic to his struggle. His performance was safe, sticking close to the score and never daring to take the audience anywhere other than the basic path to the whimpering end. I had enjoyed the airiness of Mozart as a prelude to the passion of Tchaikovsky, but El Serafi performed the Tchaikovsky as if it were written by Mozart, letting the notes drift out casually rather than pitching them with vigor. His long, slow notes in the second movement quivered where they should have ached, trickled where they should have roared.
El Serafi failed to communicate with the orchestra, a community of musicians tasked with supporting the leader but unsupported by him. Spörri could not take the orchestra to the soaring volumes demanded by the music. So Spörri settled for grace in lieu of grandeur. He led the strings admirably through the hushed passage of the second movement and the shock of the third movement’s opening, which springs into a light, quick step, but when El Serafi took off into his loudest moments, the orchestra had to quiet down to support him.
By intermission, the concert had become a narrative, and my mind took to the metaphor of watching a movie or reading a novel or the news. Mozart’s overture represented the pleasant opening scenes of a place where all is well and bright, if a little uninspiring. With Tchaikovsky came darkness, or plot development, a looming challenge and El Serafi, the one with the power to sing, could not quite get a handle on the situation. After the intermission, Spörri would attempt to bring things back to triumph with Brahms’ first symphony, and I eagerly waited, rooting for the group to finish with victory.
Under Spörri’s stern guidance, the musicians took the audience back to seriousness with which we had left off in the form of dark string chords, which Brahms sets over a steady timpani pulse, like a war drum far in the distance.
Unlike a concerto, which for better or worse relies on the virtuosic leadership of an individual, a symphony relies on everyone doing their part in equal measure. The conductor is constrained by how much the musicians follow the baton, the string players are constrained by one another, like workers in a factory that must produce unison, and the winds, brass, and percussion each get moments of glory but only as they are given room by the others.
And so I watched stasis return to the small community so challenged by Tchaikovsky. The strings created warm beds of buttery chords for the oboe and clarinet soloists, excellent but unnamed in the program, to trade humble yet stirring melodies. The basses and cellos growled a slow, plaintive melody that only served in juxtaposition to highlight and strengthen the clarity of a solo flute. When the first violinist played a high floating melody in unison with the first oboist, each gave the other room to be heard, supporting and guiding in equal measure like two lovers.
The symphony finally landed smoothly on the nostalgic, kingly melody of Brahms’ final movement, which many compare to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The music is suddenly in C Major, the very same key as Mozart’s overture. We returned to the simple elegance of the concert’s opening, only now we had a whole journey to remember. The orchestra had struggled to support an individual that only weighed everyone down, but they had come together in community to reach triumph.