Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 August 2019

Abu Dhabi’s first Festival Recital Series all set with noteworthy musicians

Meet the three classical talents playing ADF's first Festival Recital Series, Ah Ruem Ahn, Julian Libeer and Aisha Syed Castro.
Julien Libeer. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival
Julien Libeer. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival

Ah Ruem Ahn (Tuesday)

For pianists, Chopin’s Preludes represent a totemic mountain to climb – an arduous set of 24 solo pieces, utilising all 24 musical keys, neatly arranged in a harmonious circle of fifths.

Short sketches varying in length from just 12 to 90 bars, the preludes are characterised not only by the technical dexterity they demand, but also the interpretative inspiration.

They lack a typical formal structure and frequently end abruptly, so the pianist is left a huge amount of artistic freedom – the kind of freedom that separates a true artist from a gifted ­technician.

Finding a unique voice was the big challenge facing Ah Ruem Ahn when she tackled the ­Preludes for the first time.

“Sometimes I sit at a piano for six hours, but not just playing – thinking about the music and how I can express it,” she says.

“With Chopin’s Preludes it’s very difficult, as most of them are less than one minute – you don’t have the time to show much emotion in such small pieces. It’s about how you can link the ideas together.”

And, despite a number of successful performances of the Preludes last year, the South Korean pianist, who lives in Germany, says she still has work to do – and anxieties to conquer – before performing the set in Abu Dhabi.

“Even though I’ve played them before, I never know what will come,” she says. “Even now, I practise them a lot and I don’t know how it will work out. There are things that are still difficult to me”.

To warm up for the challenge, during the first half of Tuesday’s concert she will open the evening with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E minor – “a very easy piece for the audience and a good one to try out the piano” – before a reading of Schubert’s Four Impromptus because, quite simply, “Schubert is really my favourite composer, so I always try to put a piece of his in”.

Julien Libeer (March 13)

When Julien Libeer plays the ­piano best, he enters a trance-like, “higher” spiritual state that he struggles to explain through science alone.

“My first really transcendental experience was playing a concert at age 19,” he says. “I worked hard but I wasn’t expecting anything strange or unfamiliar, but somehow something happened. And ever since, I go hunting for that – the entire practice is trying to make things like that possible”.

One expects classical musicians to be entirely mentally consumed with the dexterity their work requires. Yet the Belgian pianist’s best moments come when his mind is furthest from the keys. Can this phenomenon be explained in purely physiological terms?

“You have the impression that you’re not playing yourself, that something is accompanying you in that process, which is the basic definition of a spiritual experience,” says the 27-year-old.

Libeer says he has a difficult time defining himself in religious terms, “I’m somehow very dissatisfied with the theories that are offered to me to explain these experiences – but I can’t deny they’re there. So I’m somewhere in the middle and I’m happy there.”

The audience will hope Libeer reaches such an artistic plane when he visits the region for the first time to perform a programme primarily featuring Bach (French Suite No 5 in G major) and Schubert (Piano Sonata in E minor).

“Why? Because I like them – and I like confronting Bach and Schubert – I always feel a strange resemblance. What’s interesting is that they both position themselves at different ends of the existential question,” says Libeer, a dazzling conversationalist in a non-native tongue.

“With Bach you have this very safe way of talking about the didactics of life – Schubert does the opposite. Where Bach lifts himself above and beyond the human condition, Schubert goes straight to the core of it. They have a very spiritual aspect of the music in common, but they approach it with almost opposite eyes and writing techniques.”

Aisha Syed Castro (March 17)

At the age of 11, Aisha Syed Castro stood on a stage, picked up a violin and her life changed. As she performed alongside the National Symphony Orchestra of her native Dominican Republic, in front of a packed concert hall that included her country’s president, Syed Castro’s fate as a professional musician was sealed. The course of her life irrevocably changed. Was she nervous?

“I was just looking forward to chocolate cake after the performance,” she says with a laugh.

“I watched the tape back recently and I couldn’t believe how confident I was. Now, I’m confident in a different way – but young children just don’t care what people think.”

Now 25, Syed Castro got an early start playing the violin in a place with little tradition of classical music – two facts that have gone on to inform how she lives today. In 2010 she founded the altruistic Music for Life Foundation. Now living in Florida, she returns to her native country about four times a year to visit schools, orphanages, hospitals and prisons, sharing her music.

“Being in such a privileged position, you have a responsibility to give back,” she says. “I encourage people, telling them that if I can get there, so can they. Children are the future of everything and if you don’t pay attention to them now, in 10 years you are going to have a problem.”

It’s a guiding role she is looking forward to playing in the UAE, with plans for school visits around the time of her closing concert at the festival.

The pieces she will perform include Ravel’s Violin Sonata No 2, Bach’s Chaconne, Paganini’s La Campanella and, as a tribute to her home nation, a piece by the Dominican composer Julio Alberto Hernández, entitled My First Kiss.

• All concerts are at Emirates Palace, 8pm. Tickets for the Recital Series are sold out. Visit www.abu­dhabifestival.ae for details.

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: February 28, 2015 04:00 AM

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