For some time now I’ve been craving a night at the symphony.
Some of you are rolling your eyes and saying that’s the whitest, bougie-est thing you’ve ever heard, but that’s ok. I don’t mind. My mother is a classically trained musician and I started taking violin lessons at the age of 8; by the time I was in high school, I was playing in several local youth orchestras, freelancing at Christmas parties and churches during Messiah season, and studying music history and theory at school. Watching, performing, and listening to the classical repertoire was a huge part of my childhood and to me it will never be boring or stodgy. Classical music is where I turn when I’m homesick, depressed, or racing a deadline. A concert hall is still a special kind of home.
Q: What does this have to do with the Cairo Opera house and all these photos of Alexandria? A: Be patient.
A few days ago I spotted a flyer advertising a Cairo Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Egyptian concert pianist Ramzi Yassa. I’m not sure why, but I decided to go alone, even though a quick facebook post probably would have drummed up a few friends to come along. But I sensed this was something I needed to do alone. It turns out there was a reason.
Did I mention that the Cairo opera house is within walking distance of where I live? That’s never happened to me before.
I strolled down to the south end of the Nile island I’m living on and approached the ticket office 10 minutes before the start of the concert. An Egyptian woman asked me if I wanted to buy her extra ticket – since her husband had decided not to come, it was just her and her mom and an empty seat and she was happy to give me a great deal. I immediately agreed and we were promptly ushered directly in front of the Steinway on which Ramzi Yassa was about to perform.
The first piece was Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which is a piece even the haters out there will recognize. It’s not my favorite, but it’s great, and it’s very, very American. Predictably, it made me cry.
As the last chords of the fanfare drew to a close we decided that while our seats were great seats, they were actually too close to the stage, and on the wrong side of the piano for us to have a really good view besides, so at the very last minute – as the orchestra was filing onstage – we conspiratorially whispered a plan and bolted to a row of empty seats at the other side of the orchestra section: fifth row, house left. We had a perfect view of the piano’s keys. And we sat down too close to the start of the concerto for the ushers to make us move. Hehehe.
Yassa was performing Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, which is one of my favorite Beethoven pieces ever. I had listened to it just last week on a down day (seriously, take 10 minutes to watch this kind of incredible recording of Daniel Barenboim conducting and performing the final movement and tell me it doesn’t make you feel happier (and for the record, Barenboim is great, but I liked Yassa’s interpretation even better)). And now I was watching it in a gorgeous hall with a great orchestra, fifteen feet away from a truly world-class pianist with a full view of his hands. Obviously I teared up several times more. It was an incredible performance and made particularly special because the star performer was Egyptian. It’s the kind of thing you can feel in the space between artist and audience, and it was amazing to witness.
The last time Yassa was supposed to perform here in Cairo, the Brotherhood was in charge of things, and an unprecedented strike happened instead of the much-anticipated concert. That was just a few months ago. The mood in Cairo has taken several turns in different directions since then, but Yassa’s performance was brilliant, polished, stately, and emotional; and on top of it all, he looked like he was enjoying the entire thing immensely.
During intermission, the mother – who reminded me so much of my own grandmother, who used to always take me to symphony concerts when I was a girl (yes, more emotion) – told me that they weren’t regular symphony goers, but had come to this concert specifically because of Ramzi Yassa. She and Yassa had both grown up in Alexandria (although her family is originally from Gaza) and studied with the same piano teacher when they were young. She still had the program of a recital that listed both of their names.
Their piano teacher, she said, had been a member of the Russian aristocracy who’d fled after the revolution and ended up in Alexandria – which was, she said, in those days, the most cosmopolitan place you could possibly imagine. “What did these women have to live on?” she asked. “All they had were their languages and their musical training. They had been raised to be ladies. So she taught French and piano. She always said Ramzi was going to be a brilliant musician.” I explained that I had also taken years of music lessons as a girl and had always been a little bit sad that I never had the talent to play professionally (unlike some of my old classmates who are kind of a big deal these days).
The story’s Soviet touch was fitting because the final piece on the program was Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony, a piece I played in high school. Before we began rehearsing, our conductor remarked (with his characteristic dry wit) that to play it properly we really had to imagine the kind of Soviet Russian humor that cold winters, plenty of vodka, a Bolshevik revolution and a brutal war might produce (he was spot on; if you want to know what I’m talking about, you should listen to that too…the final movement is the best). The orchestra did a sparkling job – especially the piccolo player, mercy, where did he come from? – and the absolutely to die for hilarious last five minutes of the final movement (I bet you didn’t know how funny classical music can be) which they pulled off with aplomb.
The best part about hearing this piece was its history: as our program notes reminded us, it was supposed to be a final, triumphant piece in a trilogy of three symphonies commemorating the military prowess and greatness of the great Russian state. And instead Shostakovich delivered this imp of a satirical gem of a quick skip of a symphony. These days in Cairo, it often feels as though humor is really the only, last, best resort. I think that’s probably why that final movement had so much oomph to it…there’s only so much slow post-revolutionary daze and hyper militarization a people can take, and Shosti knew that when he wrote the piece.
I was positively beaming as we filed out of the concert hall, and on the way out, my new friends pressed the money I’d paid for the ticket back into my hands. “We want you to accept this invitation to the concert from us…my mom is Palestinian, and I’m Egyptian, and you should know that we’re not all just tensely debating politics and complaining about curfew all the time! This is Egypt, too!” They insisted that my ticket be free.
Did I tear up again? Obviously. My taxi was stuck in traffic the entire way back but it was ok because I had a Nile view the whole time. It was a perfect Cairo night.
All photos taken in Alexandria; see full gallery here. Also, for the record, Cairenes have better concert etiquette than the audiences at Lincoln Center. Not that I think concert etiquette is the be-all and end-all of the world, I’m just saying.
Update: for those of you interested, you can see a Ramzi Yassa playing a short Chopin piece here (I couldn’t find a recording of him playing the Beethoven online…).