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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Gulf orchestra a mirage

By Norman Lebrecht / November 5, 2008

The world’s newest orchestra gave its debut last Thursday in circumstances that veered from the synthetic to the surreal. The Emirate of Qatar in the Arab Gulf, irked by neighbouring Abu Dhabi’s importation of western acts (the Bayreuth festival ensemble was there last week), decided to form a permanent resident orchestra. Auditions were held across Europe and 101 musicians, mostly in their 20s, were signed up by the former Bavarian Radio manager, Kurt Meister.

The pay is good - £41,000 a year for rank and file players, with free housing and utilities and generous travel allowances, a far cry from the London grind. Claire Glago, a British oboist, expects to save money with her French cellist husband. ‘Nobody’s complaining,’ she tells me, despite finding their promised homes unbuilt and little to do between rehearsals except shop and swim.

The orchestra fits into Qatar’s cultural and educational strategy for when the oil runs out. Six American universities have set up campus in the Emirate, a new museum opens this month and holes have been dug in the sand for concert halls and theatres.

The first concert though, was held in a 450-seater with the acoustic of a small matchbox, tinder-dry. A bleary-eyed Lorin Maazel, flown in between two Parsifals four days apart in Valencia, conducted Beethoven’s Fifth and Ravel’s Bolero, followed by a maqam-based Arabian Concerto by the Lebanese composer, Marcel Khalife, which reminded me of an Egyptian movie soundtrack.

The Emir and half his Cabinet turned out, but the Prime Minister slipped away after two movements of Beethoven and senior officials on either side of me, one of them an Al-Jazeera TV boss, tapped text messages incessantly throughout the performance. The orchestra, which seemed to have good soloists, has not been told when it will next be called upon to perform and the entire venture exists as a kind of cultural mirage of what a time traveller might find in the Gulf two centuries from now. The vision is commendable, but the substance is presently chimerical.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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