Interviewer: Tarek Hassan Refaat
Edited by: Gilan Choubachy, Mona Timor Shehata
Publisher: Amira Haytham
“My mission was to prove to myself and to other people that Egyptians are seriously interested in different genres of arts and when they are presented with something that is of high quality they will go and attend…”
Hisham Gabr is an Egyptian resident conductor at the Cairo Opera House. He is the former Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Arts Center. He is not only known as a conductor but also a composer and as a guest conductor in many countries. He has worked on composing the music for many movies, documentaries and plays, as well.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: First of all, Hisham Gabr, thank you for taking the time to be with us and sharing with us your insights! So, let us begin, can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
HG: I joined the conservatoire at 7 years old and I graduated with my bachelor’s degree 14 years later, by pursuing my music studies. I started off with writing music for plays and then I joined the Cairo Symphony Orchestra as a flute player and that was followed by writing film scores. I started to study conducting in 2002. I got my Fulbright scholarship in 2013 and returned in 2014 with a degree in Advanced Conducting Techniques. I then Joined the Bibliotheca Alexandrina from the year 2014 to year 2017. Currently, I am a resident conductor at the Cairo Opera house
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Could you tell us more about who is a conductor or how do we define him/her? I believe many people would not know exactly what does the man behind the baton do?
HG: The conductor is like a film or theater director, he gets to deal with the musical text. He implements his vision combined with the composer’s to deliver a new experience each time.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: The orchestra perhaps is one of the most solid examples of people management do you agree, if so could you tell us how?
HG: I absolutely agree and I must say that the orchestra is one of the most complicated artistic machines. The Orchestra requires discipline that you cannot see in any other art form. This discipline stems from people. You need to have the necessary skills to deal with each artist, who is already accomplished in his/her own right. It is your job as a conductor to convince them that your vision for the piece is doable and sensible. You have to keep in mind that these artists are well versed and have probably played and practiced all the pieces the conductor has, more than the conductor himself. It’s also important to add that unlike any other artistic or non-artistic profession, the conductor cannot communicate verbally with the artists but only via practice and this requires a lot of practice and skill. Once this is all achieved the orchestra will have its required harmony.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Which is considered to be more difficult given their differences, conducting or composing?
HG: Neither is more difficult than the other. Everything is difficult if you want to do it with excellence. If you want to raise the bar you have to work yourself up till you reach your limit and get close to your breaking point, but this is what creates a distinguished piece of work.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: As a conductor what are the challenges one might face to perform with a new orchestra and how does one overcome these challenges?
HG: As I mentioned previously: the orchestra is a very complicated artistic machine. I also said that all the members are very talented musicians who are easily capable of judging a conductor from the first five minutes. Only when the communication is established and the vision is agreed to, which is not an easy task, the orchestra approves of this conductor and would begin to work with him/her. Hence, it is the other way around unlike regular management.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: As a conductor do you hire or fire people in the orchestra? If so, how does that happen?
HG: No, but the conductor can hire or fire members of the orchestra if he is the General Music Director. In many situations that is the case. However, hiring or firing a member of the orchestra is a very serious matter and it is not something that frequently happens, especially the latter.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: What are the main three key points you look for in a member of your orchestra?
HG: The hiring process is unique and the method is very non-traditional. For example, there is no interview. When a free spot in the Orchestra opens, an audition for this spot is set and all interested candidates apply. A member of the orchestra is chosen after a blind audition, where the committee listens to auditions of the applicants who come to show their skill from behind the curtain. Only then a member is chosen based on his/her skills.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Having traveled to many places across the world, has it taught you any new managerial experiences in the world of music? Could you share with us your thoughts on this subject?
HG: Of course. The orchestra members in most of the countries I have visited are highly disciplined regardless of their countries’ economic or political status. They consider this a way of life, even if the musicians juggle two or three jobs just to make ends meet.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Could you walk us through your regular day?
HG: My day in the Bibliotheca was full busy and sometimes we would work 20 hours a day. When I am composing, I wake up at 5:00 or 5:30 AM and I start composing until 6:30 AM and continue to work until 1 PM. Then I try to proceed later in the day if the inspiration keeps flowing. For Conducting, I continue to study the scores that I will be conducting, rehearse and keep myself in touch with the music.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Holding the position of Director of the Arts Center at the Bibliotheca Alexandria is an important role; could you share with us your vision and approach during your work there?
HG: My mission was to prove to myself and to other people that Egyptians are seriously interested in different genres of arts and when they are presented with something that is of high quality they will go and attend. And I was right! Within two years we made a huge impact on the number of audiences who attend what is considered to be ‘Elite Arts’. Audiences would fill a 1600-seat-theatre attending plays like Hamlet and others, as well as other performances such as: Carmina Burana. This proved my point, which is: when we work for excellence, people will come, and audience from diverse backgrounds, as well.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Do you think Egypt lacks attention in the area of culture? If you were in a high-ranking position with a budget, what would be your first decisions?
HG: Let us not rely on my personal thoughts and actually use the statistics released by the Ministry of Culture. What every Egyptian citizen gets to spend on cultural aspects is about 2.8 Egyptian pounds per year! So, this reflects where we are, just to answer your question in short. As to what I would do, my first decision would be to revive the cultural palaces. I would create a new division to work on the cultural palaces, we have 554 palaces. I would start with improving ten palaces and each year we would develop five more.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Do you think the classical music industry in Egypt is receiving what it rightly deserves? Is there space for improvement?
HG: There is indeed a space for improvement in all forms of arts, and there’s no form of art in Egypt that is getting what it rightly deserves, so I can’t talk about the classical music industry while the whole artistic scene is suffering.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Can you share with us a favorite project which you have worked on? What were the main elements of its success?
HG: Musicals are my favorite projects: they are usually very big productions and you have a great level of support whether it is financial or is through other forms of support and that helps one create something that is extremely satisfying and rewarding.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: There are various management styles, how would you describe yours?
HG: I would describe myself as a tough manager yet a friendly person. In making decisions, I have to be decisive and firm, but I’m very close to the people I work with, so I am also there for them.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: Work-life balance is one of the most debated topics in the past few years; would you share with us your thoughts on this topic?
HG: I believe I fail big time in this area. I hope that in my next managerial adventure, I look forward or will try to balance between who I am as a person, as an artist and as a manager. Because I am the type of person who really gets lost in what he does and I sometimes end up not doing justice to my family or to myself.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: It’s been quite a pleasure having you with us. Would you care to share your favorite quote that inspires you?
HG: Johannes Brahms said, “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: If there’s one advice that you would give to the youth, what would it be?
HG: Study and respect the value of knowledge.
HR Revolution Middle East Magazine: We’ve come to the end of our interview, is there something you would like to say or share?
HG: I believe that through very rough times as a nation, Egypt is like a phoenix that will burn and rise once again. We will overcome these challenging circumstances.