I am still writing about the recent, marvellous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra concert performed by the world-renowned conductor Riccardo Muti in the New Administrative Capital’s Opera House. Last week when I wrote about it as one of the most prominent cultural events of the year, which didn’t attract its due attention in our media, Ambassador Abdel-Raouf Al-Reedi wrote to me saying that we have missed musical criticism in our press for too long, and asked me to continue writing on this topic. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, established in 1842, is one of the five most important and prestigious philharmonic orchestras in the world. Riccardo Muti, the 80-year-old Italian conductor, is undoubtedly one of the greatest living conductors. He was quite fortunate in selecting a programme suitable to the Egyptian audience, for he chose Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony with its cheerful tunes and the “Great” Symphony by Schubert, the Romantic Movement’s knight as well as Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony with its leaping rhythms. In response to the Egyptian audience’s rapture at the end of the concert and their continuous applause, Muti added one of the famous waltzes by Johann Strauss’ Kaiser-Walzer.
This choice recalls a funny story about this orchestra’s relationship with Strauss who was called the Waltz King. At the start of the widespread fame of Strauss’ waltzes in the mid-19th century, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra kept refusing to perform any of them in its concerts. Strauss had composed nearly 150 waltzes but the orchestra considered them dance music that didn’t belong to the classical repertoire. In 1873, Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I commissioned Strauss to compose a special waltz to be performed at his daughter Gisela Louise Marie’s wedding. Consequently, the Vienna Orchestra was obliged to perform it during that celebration. The waltz’s title was Wiener Blut, i.e. the Spirit of Vienna. Afterwards, Strauss composed another waltz titled “Kaiser-Walzer” in thanks and recognition of Franz Joseph. This waltz gained fame through the ages and it was the one performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Muti, in response to the Egyptian audience’s warm salute at the end of the concert.
Facebook has published Riccardo Muti’s statements during his visit to Cairo in which he said: “The world without music would be transformed into a society dominated by violence, ugliness and barbarianism, for melodies represent the sound of accord and harmony that embodies morals of brotherhood and co-existence. Music was formed since the creation of our planet from the sound of wind, the humming of birds, the rhythm of nature and the succession of night and day, summer and winter. The musician described music as an inseparable part of human existence.
For his part, also on Facebook, Tarek Nasr wrote the noteworthy words: “I’ve heard these words and reflected on countries that cancelled the musical education lessons from their schools to appease some political currents and this in its turn producing, through the resulting barren decades, barbarian generations; their ethics ranged from violence to ugliness. Then, these countries suddenly look around themselves astonished as if they didn’t where this flash flood of ugliness, bigotry and terrorism has emerged. Let music and Art education lessons return to our children. This would be enough to develop any old discourse, marginalise any destructive thought and correct any twisted behaviour, that is, if we want to purify our cultural and educational environment and produce new normal and enlightened generations during the next few decades.” Then he says, “if the construction of cities isn’t accompanied by preparing its human inhabitants to be able to maintain and protect them and if the building of museums and concert halls doesn’t go together with creating alert intellects and normal psyches able to appreciate the beauty in it and develop it, or else the matter might be turned at the hands of the barbarians into damage and ruin, or into vacant architectural monuments at best.
As for Ambassador Mohammed Anis Salama, he too sent me a message: “The Opera House is requested to set a strong annual programme just like the operas in advanced countries, and what is happening now in several Arab countries. As for administrating the opera as a place for seasonal celebrations and hosting some orchestras according to the government’s bureaucratic agreements without a long-term programme, this would be a huge waste of the potential this place provides. The ambassador ended his message with a suggestion applied in most of the international museums and operas, which is the setting up of a society of friends of the New Administrative Capital Opera.
While I vote for what was mentioned in these messages wholeheartedly, I address the active musician and the distinguished pianist Ahmed Abu-Zahra, who is the supervisor of the musical programme at the Administrative Capital Opera and the one to whom credit is due for hosting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I ask him to announce the musical programme we will witness in 2022, which I think he has already begun working on. This would turn the New Opera House and its adjacent halls, the Music Hall and the Theatre Hall into an artistic and cultural focal point that would reform the ugliness and backwardness which stayed with us throughout the last decades. I also ask the alert and energetic Minister of Education Tarek Shawki to reincorporate the art and music education into the curricula in order to produce new generations that can reform the violence, ugliness and barbarianism of which Riccardo Muti warned of.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.