Fifteen years ago, there was almost nothing in Abu Dhabi for lovers of music and the arts. Today, the capital emirate is fast becoming the Middle East’s foremost city of culture.
And that is just the beginning. The development of Saadiyat Island with its Louvre and Guggenheim museums and Performing Arts Centre is one of the most ambitious and imaginative projects to be conceived and will be the cultural heart of the community in the foreseeable future.
“What we are trying to do is cater to the needs of the communities that are living in Abu Dhabi and the UAE,” explains Dr Sami el Masri, the deputy director general for arts, culture and heritage at Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach). “We are also looking at creating more awareness of what art and culture has to bring to people’s wellbeing.” He insists that the international stars and exhibitions are not brought to the city solely to raise its global profile, but to “promote harmony and appreciation of the cultural aspects of other communities”. The Womad festival is the perfect example of this.
Many of the starriest names in the cultural firmament have played in the magnificent Emirates Palace Auditorium in the past two years as part of Adach’s Abu Dhabi Classics programme. The first series of Classics took place in 2008/9 under the direction of Till Janczukowicz, featuring the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra performing a Wagner Gala. Maxim Shostakovich conducted the London Philharmonia playing the music of the conductor’s father Dmitri Shostakovich and Zubin Mehta conducted the Vienna Philharmonic playing Schubert and Strauss. The Chinese pianist Lang Lang, the Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli, the jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, trumpeter Till Brönner and vocal acrobat Bobby McFerrin of Don’t Worry, Be Happy fame were further highlights of the season.
The 2009/10 season had much to live up to and got started right away last October with the internationally acclaimed New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert performing Beethoven and Mahler and ending in May with the BBC Concert Orchestra giving a performance of classic British tunes.
France’s Radio Philharmonic, Dresden’s legendary Staatskapelle, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and the exciting young Mahler Chamber Orchestra also performed. Opera fans welcomed back Teatro La Fenice, stars of the inaugural season.
The artists themselves have been delighted at the rapturous receptions they have received. Cecilia Bartoli commented on the excellent facilities: “I was a bit concerned about the effect of air-conditioning on the voice but I needn’t have worried. It has been a wonderful experience and I hope to come back here before too long.”
Many residents remember the “DIY” days before this. “We used to get together with a group of five or six people to talk about art and music, perhaps at home or at the Cultural Foundation,” says Hoda al Khamis Kanoo, the founder of Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival. “We might for example talk about Mendelssohn and what happened during that period. Or perhaps we would discuss Iraqi art.”
Kanoo began to put the festival together five years ago and has brought some sensational performers to the UAE, including the opera stars Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca and Erwin Schrott, Sarah Chang, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra and the London Philharmonic. The Egyptian singer Khalid Selim, the Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma and the soprano and composer Hiba al Kawas have flown the flag for eastern culture.
This season’s festival opened with a moving Chopin Bicentennial Celebration by the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki. The Puccini Festival Opera performed La Bohème and a fabulous night at the ballet featured dancers from the Bolshoi.
The “popera” quartet Il Divo sang to capacity crowds at an outdoor performance in the grounds of the Emirates Palace in April and jazz lovers were thrilled to be able to listen to Wynton Marsalis in concert.
“What is happening in Abu Dhabi and the Emirates today is unparalleled in this region and in the Arab world. It’s uniquely Emirati,” says Zaki Nusseibeh, one of the most influential figures in the shaping of the nation’s cultural life who co-founded the emirate’s two classical music festivals and serves on Adach as vice chairman. Nusseibeh says that for today’s leaders, culture and heritage is at the forefront of their thinking.
El Masri says: “I look at it as investing in culture; it is a major statement by the Government to put all of these resources into creating these cultural institutions, as opposed to investing in other sectors that might not have as much social value.”
It’s not all highbrow. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival - formerly the Middle East International Film Festival - has seen a host of international stars grace the red carpet, including Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffiths in 2008 and Demi Moore, Orlando Bloom and Hilary Swank last October.