x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

In tune with the times

Feature Reaching new audiences is key to the ongoing success of London's Philharmonia Orchestra. The ensemble's return to the Abu Dhabi Classics, and the group's innovative, interactive music education projects, are a boon to young musicians.

Photographs courtesy Philharmonia Orchestra
Photographs courtesy Philharmonia Orchestra

Reaching new audiences is key to the ongoing success of London's Philharmonia Orchestra. Jo Wadham explains how the ensemble's return to the Abu Dhabi Classics, and the group's innovative, interactive music education projects, are a boon to our young musicians. One hundred and forty seven instruments, 3km of cable, 10 laptops, eight cameras, two mixing desks and three projectors. This is only part of the kit the Philharmonia Orchestra will use in Abu Dhabi when it comes to perform two concerts at Emirates Palace on January 14 and 15.

The Philharmonia Orchestra made its debut in London in October 1945, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. Since then, it regularly emerges from its concrete-clad base at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank to perform all over the world. Many leading conductors including Otto Klemperer, Herbert Von Karajan and Lorin Maazel have worked with it. The orchestra's patron is HRH the Prince of Wales and the orchestra performed at his 1981 wedding to Lady Diana Spencer.

The Philharmonia has always been innovative, so it's no surprise that one of the principal ways it tries to reach new audiences today is through its website, www.philharmonia.co.uk. The site contains webcasts, podcasts, games and, new this year, "The Sound Exchange", an interactive educational site. In November, the orchestra held a "digital residency" with a "Re-rite" programme at the Bargehouse exhibition space in London. The different sections of the Philharmonia performed Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring in various locations in the Bargehouse linked up through audio and video projections, and invited members of the public to conduct, sit with the orchestra and join in.

In their first concert for the 2009/2010 Abu Dhabi Classics season, the orchestra, conducted by the Finnish maestro, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, will perform Beethoven's Symphony No.5 and Mozart's piano concerto No.9 "Jeunehomme" with the young pianist Kit Armstrong. The next evening, following the enormous success of last year's performance, they will stage a concert featuring Disney classics, stills from Disney films projected on to three huge screens behind the orchestra.

The Disney concert will feature a choir of about 100 children from Abu Dhabi and Al Ain and showcase the product of a week-long workshop undertaken by the Philharmonia with more than 50 schoolchildren. Both Abu Dhabi Classics and the Philharmonia Orchestra are ardent supporters of music education projects. A quarter of this season's concerts are aimed at children, and there are several ancillary workshops provided by visiting orchestras. As Till Janczukowicz, artistic director of Abu Dhabi Classics, explains, "The educational activities have at least the same importance as the concerts."

The Philharmonia Orchestra's educational programme in the UK already involves about 17,000 people of all ages every year. "When [Janczukowicz] outlined his vision of great artists and great education projects, we saw that this fits perfectly with our vision for the Philharmonia Orchestra. It was a conjunction of aspiration," says David Whelton, managing director of the Philharmonia. Bringing an orchestra the size of the Philharmonia to Abu Dhabi is no small undertaking and preparations for this month's concerts began over a year ago. The first priority for the Philharmonia's tour manager, Rosemary Low, was to book flights as soon as they returned from Abu Dhabi last year. A simple task at first glance, but with the huge staff required, Low must book up half the plane. "On this tour we will be travelling with 107 orchestral personnel," she says. "Normally the orchestra is made up of 80 or 90 people; this is a big orchestra, and then we will have another 15 technical staff."

To choose the appropriate pieces for the concert, last summer Janczukowicz travelled to the Disney headquarters in Los Angeles and, together with the head of music for Disney, reviewed the Disney archives. "We were selecting pieces together and then I sent them over to Neil [Barclay, Director of Education for Abu Dhabi Classics], the Philharmonia and to the conductor, Allan Wilson, and said: 'Look at these scores, talk to each other and see what you can do, and what the kids can do.'"

This year the orchestra will be joined on stage by a choir of around 100 schoolchildren. Finding space for these extra bodies on the stage is proving a challenge for the head of the Philharmonia's digital department, Richard Slaney. With the large orchestra, and three digital screens, cameramen (some of whom will be Abu Dhabi schoolchildren recently graduated from the Philharmonia's educational workshop), and the kilometres of cable, Slaney certainly has his hands full. But like the rest of this young and dynamic team from the Philharmonia, he brims with enthusiasm for the tour. "We haven't done anything on this scale, anywhere. It's very exciting. It gives the children an insight into what is possible, what can be done, creatively. Music is not just about learning scales; it's more of a process. They are working together with professional musicians in a way that is different."

The educational projects will involve children from the British School - Al Khubairat, Al Yasmeena School and Al Raha International School. The projects are intended to involve them in two keys areas: music and visual/digital arts. Last year, the Philharmonia worked with a group of children in Abu Dhabi to produce a visual and musical performance based on Stravinsky's Firebird. This year they have chosen to work on Beethoven. "Beethoven's fifth symphony is amazing to explore with kids," says Julia Williamson, head of education for the Philharmonia. "It is very accessible and very exciting. We will focus on the first movement: the key themes, key aspects and get the kids to think creatively. We will then use this as a basis for them to create their own composition."

Paul Rissmann, who will narrate Friday's Disney concert, is also a composer and the educational project leader. He and a small group from the Philharmonia came to Abu Dhabi in October to provide a "taster" of what was to come and to start the children thinking and drawing. "We wanted to encourage them to improvise and come up with their own renditions. So, the musicians played Beethoven's fifth with a samba-feel and again with a jazz-feel to give the children an idea of how out of the box they can think."

By the end of the week, having worked in small groups with four musicians from the orchestra, they will have created a final piece, which they will perform at Emirates Palace at 6pm on Thursday, before the Philharmonia takes to the stage. "It's so much fun," says Williamson. "We see massive progress from day one to day four. I am constantly amazed at what they manage to achieve in such a short time."

Those involved with the visual arts project will learn about digital technology, led by Nick Hillel, an animator and filmmaker. They will create an animation to accompany the music students' composition and the Disney concert. Some will also learn how to operate the video cameras and be responsible for a portion of the live feed during the two concerts. "They learn an awful lot in less than a week," says Slaney. "They will have to be professionals by the last day of the project because they will have to be on stage with the orchestra, with a head set on, me in their ears, saying 'coming to you, camera 5!'"

Some of the musicians' instruments cost tens of thousands of dirhams (in fact, some musicians view their instruments as their pension funds). Because of this, great care has to be taken when taking them on tour. On European tours, the instruments are transported over land, but travelling to Abu Dhabi requires a flight, which brings its own problems. Whatever can't be taken as hand luggage will go as cargo. These instruments are packed in their own cases and placed in special travelling trunks, packed with hard sheets of foam. "Provided there is not an enormous amount, it will go on a normal passenger aircraft, which means that transport staff can travel with the instruments," says Low. The transport manager looks after the instruments during their journey. "Instruments, especially string instruments, are very sensitive to the cold and to heat. Any extreme can put out their tuning. This is generally not a problem during the flight, but before and after take off. If we have a transport manager with them, they can see if one of our pallets has been left out on the runway for too long."

Before the musicians leave for Abu Dhabi, the orchestra rehearses with Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Allan Wilson. "We have about three or four rehearsals before we leave, and that's a standard amount," says Clare Thompson, first violin and deputy chairman of the orchestra. The orchestra has worked with Allan Wilson many times before. "We've done lots of recording with him. He is great working with film and we've done one or two backing tracks for games with him."

Thompson thinks Beethoven's fifth is an ideal choice for the concert. "It has one of the most well-known openings of a classical symphony. It is such an exciting and dramatic opening that it never ceases to please people. Then after that it turns into a most beautiful symphony." But, although fun, it is a difficult piece to play: "It is very technical and requires a lot of rhythmic control. The opening is known as 'the conductor's graveyard' because it is so challenging. There are so many different entries all over the orchestra." Thompson adds that the symphony was quite innovative in its day: "This was the first piece ever to use trombones. Beethoven was quite go-ahead, really."

The Philharmonia is also known as being quite "go-ahead". As managing director, Whelton is keenly aware of the need to keep the orchestra and classical music relevant, particularly to young people. "An orchestra only exists because of the audience and therefore we feel a huge responsibility towards developing the audience of the future. We need to start while they are still in school; create a habit of concert-going and make this an ordinary part of their lives." The website is an ideal medium for this: "We can reach young people more efficiently this way. It is a method of communication they are familiar with."

if you are in the audience watching the Philharmonia's Thursday-night concert, try to look up into to the fly gallery above the stage and you may see the three big screens hanging from the fly bars. Because of the short turnaround between concerts, Slaney and his team will have worked through the night and day to "pre-rig" the Disney concert. No small feat as they will have had to disassemble, then rebuild, the acoustic shell which surrounds the orchestra to do so.

Slaney, who, like Low and Williamson, studied music at university, has no trouble following a musical score, but on the night of the Disney concert will have an assistant to do this for him. He will be occupied with watching the monitors as he supervises the images being projected on to the screens behind the orchestra. "I will have seven cameras to look at and then whatever visuals we are going to show, as well as an output monitor that shows what we are outputting on to the main screen."

His cameramen will include the children who learnt how to use a camera in the educational project. "You need a huge amount of training and special skill to do this sort of camera work, and we will be using kids of 14 or 15. But they are really up for it. The energy from a show like that is fantastic. They are so excited by the opportunity they have had, and the music." Once the show is over, the process of packing up begins straight away. "There's a real low when it's finished," says Slaney, "and you've got four hours of winding up cables while the musicians are off having dinner."

With any luck it won't be long after that before Low is booking flight tickets again. What is clear from talking to the Philharmonia team is that they are passionate about good music and eager to share their passion with the people of Abu Dhabi. As Whelton says, "Abu Dhabi Classics is an outstanding organisation, it's so exciting to be a part of it. The way people's eyes light up in a great concert, and the way it can really enrich people's lives - that's such a satisfying moment."

The Philharmonia will perform "Symphonic Masterworks - Mozart and Beethoven" on Thursday, January 14, and Disney In Concert on Friday, January 15, both at the Emirates Palace auditorium. Tickets can be bought at www.timeouttickets.com, by phone (800-4669 toll free within the UAE) or from Virgin Megastores.