The Abu Dhabi Classics director Till Janczukowicz talks about this year's exciting season.
Sometimes it's like waiting for a bus. You wait and wait to hear a very special orchestra and then two come along at once. So it is with this year's Abu Dhabi Classics. Two of the world's finest orchestras from the same city will be making their Arab debuts in November and January.
It has taken three years of patience and planning to get the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim here. Now they are both coming in the same season - part of an incredible programme of stellar musicians put together by the Classics director Till Janczukowicz and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage - which also includes the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale dell RAI with the acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
"The third season is really the result of work that started when we were preparing the first season," explains Janczukowicz. "When we were planning the Abu Dhabi Classics for the first time back in 2008 we talked to the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Neither of them could do it the first year, as these orchestras plan three or four years ahead. Now they are able to come, so we have a season that was planned three years ago.
"We are very lucky. When this sort of thing happens, you can't tell one of them they can't come because the other is also booked. We are thrilled and excited to have them both with two such illustrious conductors." The season opens on Wednesday at the Emirates Palace Auditorium with the Royal Concertgebouw conducted by Daniele Gatti performing Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 5.
Janczukowicz is particularly pleased that the orchestra, famed for its interpretation of Mahler's works, is opening the Classics during a year when the musical world is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 100th anniversary of his death (1860-1911). "Traditionally, the entire Mahler cycle is played in one season, but that is in places like London where there are probably 60,000 people who regularly attend such concerts.
"Here in Abu Dhabi in our first Classics season, Zubin Mehta conducted Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. In the second season the New York Philharmonic played Symphony No 1 and now we have the 5th Symphony, the one with the lovely Adagietto for strings and harp that was made famous in the Visconti film Death in Venice. "The evening opens with a piece that Mahler especially loved and frequently conducted, the beautiful Siegfried Idyll, by his greatest musical influence, Richard Wagner."
The orchestra is giving a special concert for young people on Thursday morning, again featuring the Siegfried Idyll, composed by Wagner for his wife Cosima's birthday on Christmas Eve 1870 and first performed for her at the couple's Swiss country villa. It was written to commemorate the birth of their son Siegfried. Working with schools and colleges is very much part of the remit of the Classics and visiting musicians are asked to give talks and workshops with local schoolchildren and students. It's what sets the Abu Dhabi concert series apart from other music festivals.
"All the orchestras we are bringing do a concert on one night and something with the kids the next morning. They do special programmes with surprise pieces for the children, and it's an important part of the educational programme," says Janczukowicz. "What we are trying to do is to educate the generation that will be leading the country in 10 or 15 years time. The orchestras have been going to all sorts of schools, Emirati, American and British, but this year we have had even more enquiries from the Emirati schools. It takes time for this sort of thing to filter through. We send out letters to all the schools, but at first we only got so many responses. Now it's much better and there is a genuine and widespread interest.
"Last year, the Teatro de Fenice did a performance in Al Ain and about 120 Emirati women students from the UAE University attended. About 15 of them came backstage afterwards and they were so enthusiastic about the performance, saying they had never heard that kind of music before. They wanted to have their pictures taken with the musicians who are back for the third time this year. "It is also possible for music students to listen to rehearsals. This year, Yo-Yo Ma will be working with local musicians giving a masterclass. He is very interested in oud music and all kinds of folk music."
There is clearly a huge sense of pride at the achievements of Adach over a relatively short period of time. "It's a major achievement to start something new and see it consolidated in the space of three years. Adach is saying to the world 'we are here, we have our own culture, but we are interested in experiencing other musical cultures. We are open and we want a cultural dialogue. Adach has created something really special. Their vision was there right from the start when we were sitting there planning the first season.'"
It has not been an easy job during a period of financial global recession that has forced concert series organisers all over the world to focus on the core elements. Says Janczukowicz: "It's a period where everybody is reflecting what happens. On the concert scene internationally people are getting back to their roots and concentrating on the essentials. I spoke to a conductor recently and he said that people are going more to classical concerts. During a recession, when things are being cut, people want something more substantial. The effects of the recession are the same all over the world.
"I wasn't worried because we have maintained an amazing degree of quality every season. It's more a question of regrouping and re-evaluating. Some European countries are cutting subsidies to culture and the arts, but it is scientifically proven what music does to children, increasing their awareness and creative skills and putting the right half and the left half of the brain together and stirring the emotions.
"Everyone is cutting back, but what you are seeing is that the essence stays. If you look at cultural life in Europe you have two ways of doing it - one where it is subsidised by the government, or you go for the more popular crossover acts. Everywhere you go there are people who feel they can make big business and big money out of everything, but it doesn't work with art. Either you kill the art or you make bad business. We have to find a balance, and that is what we are doing here.
"It's very important to give people time to prepare for something and digest. You don't go to a classical music concert every night, although we do have people who come to every concert." This year's season sees one or two concerts every month from October to May, including those at the Al Jahili Fort during the Al Ain Classics Festival. "The venue at Al Jahili Fort is unique. Many musicians have marveled at it, and the Vienna Philharmonic suggested we have a chamber music concert in the courtyard. There are only 400 seats and no amplification, but they love it."
One reason for the success of the Classics is that is very much in line with government strategy for the development of culture and tourism. Plans are already underway for when the new Performing Arts Centre is due to be completed along with the Guggenheim and the Louvre museums. "There are big Verdi and Wagner anniversaries coming up," says Janczukowicz. "Cultural tourism has really started to take off. Every little tour operator who has been providing trips is now increasing the numbers of trips. The Classics series is a sustainable project with the government. Firstly, it's about promoting glamorous events; secondly, it's about education; and thirdly, it's about tourism," he adds.
Janczukowicz points to the success of established festivals such as Salzburg, founded in 1920, and heavily subsidised by the Austrian government. "The Salzburg festival receives subsidies of about €14 million (Dh71m), but brings back €215 million to the country from tourists who spend money in the hotels, restaurants and on concerts. It works in the long run, if you do it properly. Travellers to the UAE buy airline tickets and spend money here leaving on average about €2,500 in the country.
"We have hundreds of tourists coming for all the concerts. I also have to say a big thank you and much respect for the public of Abu Dhabi. All the orchestras, without exception, have remarked at how amazingly appreciative the audiences were. The musicians all felt that the public understood what they do. The feedback has been amazing. At every concert we've had eight to 12 ambassadors and people telling us that their husbands moved business trips because they don't want to miss concerts."
With hundreds of musicians to be accommodated and dates to be coordinated, organising a season of concerts requires meticulous planning and constant shuttling around the musical capitals of the world, speaking to conductors and soloists face to face. The past few months have been a whirlwind of meetings with trips to Washington DC to see Lorin Maazel and Daniel Barenboim; London, for talks with the BBC Concert Orchestra; then on to Turin to speak to the RAI orchestra.
"It's a lot of communication, seeing the artists in person and talking to them because we do not invite them just for a concert like other promoters. We ask them to work with schools and universities. It's about creating credibility. The first year it was all done on trust; now that the Abu Dhabi Classics are established, they all want to come back. "After three years it is a tradition, but compared to other concert series we are still young.
"What is unbelievable in Abu Dhabi is that in a short time you can achieve things that couldn't be achieved elsewhere. Looking back and sitting here talking about the third season, you think it's impossible that it all happened, that we have brought sustainability, regularity and great artists, and that it has become constant thing. "We opened the first season with the Bayreuth, and last season with the New York Philharmonic. This year, it's the revered Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. Really, that's pretty amazing."
Tickets are available from timeoutabudhabi.com, and at the Emirates Palace hotel.