Manal Mohie El-Din puts the virtues of the harp on display
CAIRO: How apt that the instrument which owes its very existence to Egypt should still find a home here. This most marginalized of instruments, apparently confined to the satellite provinces of any orchestra in which it has the audacity to feature, was propelled to the forefront of the ensemble Wednesday night.
The harp has endured a level of disdain amongst the musical classes bordering on ignominy for centuries. From its place at the center of ancient Egyptian musical heritage in the 4th century B.C., it practically disappeared off the radar for more than a millennium, making all too rare cameo appearances alongside more illustrious compatriots, such as the piano or violin.
Manal Mohie El-Din may not be about to bring the harps exile from the public consciousness to an end, but she does challenge her audience to think of the harp as more than merely an instrument for evoking dream-like feelings in their minds.
To witness Mohie El-Din play the harp is to observe her grapple, duel and finally tame it. The instrument stands taller than she, is deeper than her arms allow her to be and imposes, through its many strings, a zebra-like shadow all over her.
So slight is Mohie El-Din compared to her adversary that she must tilt the harp inwards to get the depth of field her short arms don’t provide her with. The unevenness of the contest makes the outcome all the more enjoyable.
Playing in the Open Air Theater of the Cairo Opera House alongside a percussionist, flute, three violinists and a cello, Mohie El-Din serves up a truly awe-inspiring performance that displays all the virtues of an instrument which is considerably more dynamic than it usually gets credit for.
To do this without appearing over-indulgent or pretentious is no mean feat. The danger for musical virtuosos is that their eagerness to display their instruments capabilities overshadows any need to play comprehensible music that the audience can understand.
The harp is both percussive and tonal, and thus presents its commander with even more options than most other instruments. Mohie El-Din masterfully controls its many options, guiding the instrument through the arrangements set up by the accompaniment instruments. The music is a fine combination of world-music styles heavily influenced by Arabic styles, with pop sensibilities helping the songs connect with a, to the harp, unaccustomed audience.
To describe each song would be superfluous, as music this good is considerably more than its constituent parts deciphered. Suffice to say, Mohie El-Din served up a most eloquent and respect-demanding concert without at any time dictatorially overshadowing her orchestra. The result was a well balanced, beautifully-sounding concert, that all would be well advised to see next time Mohie El-Din graces us with her presence.