x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Orchestrating a new musical tradition

Sunday interview Be it classical, rock or Bollywood, Philipp Maier has always followed the muse of music.

Philipp Maier conducts the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra during a recent summer rehearsal session.
Philipp Maier conducts the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra during a recent summer rehearsal session.

It is a humid Monday evening and shadowy figures are making their way across the car park of Dubai College, heading towards the music room and carrying a variety of oddly-shaped cases. The curvaceous outline of the largest, a cello, gives a clue as to what is going on. Listening to snatches of ­conversations in several different languages or heavily accented English points to an international gathering of musicians.

As they begin to take out their instruments - violins, clarinets, oboes, piccolos, flutes - and start tuning and warming up, it is clear that this is something rather ­special. A smart tap on a lectern, the rustle of sheet music and suddenly the strains of ­Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture comes floating through the night air. It is the first time these particular musicians have tackled the piece with its familiar climactic volley of cannon fire and the chimes of church bells. They stop, they start again, going over tricky phrases till they are perfect. By the time they do a complete run through of the overture (written to commemorate Russia's stand against Napoleon's advancing army at the Battle of Borodino), the hairs on the back of my neck are standing to attention with a mixture of pride and excitement.

For this is the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra (UAEPO), just over two years old and made up of musicians from 21 different countries. It is already making its mark in the cultural fabric of the Emirates. At the Eighth Al Ain Music Festival in March, the 65-strong orchestra performed to ­acclaim alongside some of the world's greatest orchestras, including Germany's Dresdner Staatskapel, the Warsaw Philharmonic and Milan's La Scala Orchestra.

Now going into their third year as a ­proper orchestra, musicians are starting work on their repertoire for autumn. Judging by their performance in the last practice session before the summer holidays, the new season is going to be superb. For the benefit of the many lovers of classical music in the UAE who may not even know about the orchestra, it owes its existence to the efforts of one man, Philipp Maier, 46, a German-born conductor and concert pianist who moved here in 2005.

In the concert halls of Europe and in his native Bavaria he is something of a celebrity, as well as in South Africa, where he ran the Durban Philharmonic Orchestra for six years. Moving to the UAE has meant starting again, but his achievements with the orchestra have already been extraordinary. "I started it because in a society like [this one] here you have literally all cultures of the world and an orchestra is a necessity, especially in Dubai where everything is focused on the economy. People are looking for something with soul. An orchestra is what is needed for that. It's a perfect vehicle for reflecting the culture of any society.

"If you look at the history of orchestral ­music here, they tend to import orchestras for functions and gala nights," he continues. "There's obviously a need for a locally-based orchestra." Finding the musicians and putting together an orchestra from scratch without any financial backing was a daunting task. First, Maier had to re-establish his credentials by putting on a series of concerts called City Serenade, held at the Fairmont Hotel in Dubai. With the help of a Dubai-based businessman and music lover, John Deykin, who owns a brand management agency and offered to publicise the concerts, Maier filled the room every time. To say the concerts were sell-outs wouldn't be accurate as he did not charge an entrance fee. But in a room that can accommodate 180 seats, they started turning people away when the audience reached 220.

In between conducting a programme that included Liszt, Chopin and Bach, Maier spoke passionately to his audience about his dreams of forming a philharmonic orchestra in the UAE. By the end of the night he had a substantial handful of telephone numbers and business cards from local musicians, many of whom were working here as music teachers, or whose spouses had moved here for business reasons. He made a date with them to meet up with their instruments a week later in a room lent to them by Jumeirah College and that was the beginning.

"You start an orchestra by generating ­interest among musicians. Quite a lot of musicians came to the first concert. I soon realised there was a real thirst for good music," he says. "But I had to convince the musicians that I could do it. There was a distinct difference in how they treated me after they heard me give a recital." Backed by an ensemble of 20 musicians, the second concert was more ambitious, with performances of Beethoven, Grieg, Schubert and a rousing piano finale of David Foster's Winter Games. Such was the interest from the musicians themselves that some of them would drive to Dubai from Abu Dhabi and Al Ain for rehearsals. They played in the foyer of the Westin Mina Seyahi Hotel at its launch earlier this year and a property company filmed them ­playing in the desert for a television commercial to advertise a ­development in ­Ajman.

"We started off with six musicians in February 2006. Then it went up to 12 then back down to four," Maier recalls. "It was typical of the way things happen in Dubai as expats move on." An inquiry from Etihad for musicians to play at a corporate function was the first step towards something more permanent. "By this stage we had about 20 people. We would just make do with whatever instruments we had in the group. For example, sometimes we didn't have a bassoonist, so I would frantically rewrite the arrangements and substitute that part for a saxophone."

They called themselves the Dubai Philharmonic Orchestra to begin with, but by the time Maier had assembled 75 musicians made up of 21 different nationalities living all over the UAE, he decided it should have a name that reflected its national make-up, so UAEPO was born. In December 2006, the ­orchestra was formally launched with two free concerts in the Community Theatre at Mall of the Emirates. "The response to these first concerts was fantastic. There was a lot of appreciation among the audience and the public which was followed by huge interest from the corporate world as they began to realise they could book the orchestra and use it for functions." He continues: "There is also huge ­interest from international orchestras around the world who are very keen to collaborate with us and musicians who want to come here and work. Without any proper official support we have actually become a signpost for cultural life and ­musical ­development in the UAE."

Maier is determined that the orchestra will tackle just about anything that inspires them. "It's a question of striking a balance between Arabic music, Chinese, rock and original compositions, from Pirates of the Caribbean to Rhapsody in Blue, with Indian music in between. We had a Diwali concert using music from Bollywood films, for ­example. We have several ideas for next season including of course a symphony series dedicated to classical music. Every ­orchestra has to do that."

Another ambitious project is a symphonic work with Bobby Kimball, the American singer and front man of the rock group Toto. This collaboration reflects Maier's lifelong passion for rock music. In his twenties, he formed his own rock band, called Airborne, in Bavaria, landing a contract with CBS and producing two albums. It gave Maier, who combined his musical career with 10 years as a pilot for Lufthansa, a solid grounding in production techniques and studio management. "It gave me a lot of practical experience," he says. "We had this huge record company behind us, met all these famous people, partied with ZZ Top and Sade and learnt a lot about studio work and recording."

@style body: Born in Augsburg in 1962, Maier grew up in a family where music was a way of life. One of his earliest memories is of listening to the Brandenburg Concertos at the age of three sitting on a little swing in the living room of his home. "My mother played cello and piano and my brother Christophe is now a French hornist in the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. We would have wonderful Christmases singing Christmas Carols and then the real music would start." His father was a conductor and professor of music and very much involved in the cultural life of the city. He was a member of the city council and on the board of the local theatre. He also founded a highly successful youth orchestra which is now the Bavarian State Orchestra.

"My father played the organ in a local church every Sunday just for the love of it. I would sit beside him on this big organ and experience Mozart, Bruckner, Schubert, Haydn. My father allowed me to play after the service." Educated at a humanistic school run by Benedictine monks, Maier became a member of the school orchestra playing cello and piano. He gave his first concert as solo pianist at the age of 13 on tour in America playing Haydn's D Major piano concerto.

His father's work with the youth orchestra gave him plenty of opportunity to build up his repertoire to include Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. "That got me hooked on performing," says Maier, who studied music at a conservatory in Augsburg after leaving school. He soon began to realise that he wanted to conduct. At the age of 20 he took over an 80-person local church choir that produced a major work every year for a public performance. "There's a great choral tradition in Bavaria and the first work we did was Bruckner's short D Minor Mass. It was quite a thing for a 20-year-old who wanted to be a conductor. I was a bit nervous about how the choir would react, but it went very well."

At the same time he was developing his skills as a concert pianist, but his ­experience with the choir confirmed his belief that the way forward for him was conducting. "I did play the big piano ­concertos at a very early stage," he says. "But if I had continued I would have had to enter the rat race of international competitions. That kills your personality, your musicality; there are so many kids who are all technically brilliant but they don't do anything else but practise piano for 14 hours a day. My approach was always, how can you possibly play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto if you have not done anything else in your life?

"For me, conducting was a perfect way of making music. When you work as a pianist and play these big piano concertos you are restricted by a lot of technicalities and logistics, the instrument you play or the concert hall. There are a lot of things which take your focus away from concentrating on making music." When he wasn't studying or working with the choir, Maier was playing keyboard and composing for his rock band. There, he became involved with the mechanics of ­recording studios. A change in broadcasting laws in Bavaria meant that private radio stations were springing up and they needed people to run them. Maier was recruited by the owners of the newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine to build a studio.

"They gave me this dream opportunity of building a recording studio from scratch. From my work with Airborne I knew exactly what was needed, but as soon as the radio station was up and running it became regimented, so I started looking for a new challenge." Although he continued to perform as a ­pianist, Maier began to work in theatre where his director was Bruno Weil, the ­acclaimed international conductor who was then working for Herbert von Karajan, a renowned Austrian opera and orchestra conductor.

"Bruno Weil was right in the centre of the music business not only locally but internationally, so it was a wonderful opportunity for me. He taught me something very important: that you never have time to work on something and get it perfect in the real world. For example, on a Tuesday afternoon at four o'clock, you get a delivery of a piano reduction score of Wagner's Lohengrin - a four hour opera - and at seven o'clock you have to do the rehearsal. You've never seen the piece in your life, so not only do you have to sight read it but you have to deal with it.

"Weil taught me the reality of [the music business]. I had to learn Italian, for example, because you have to read opera scores. It gave me a good idea about theatre work, which made me decide that I didn't want to take that route. It's a very unmusical way of working. You are bashing away at piano scores with more or less talented opera singers and you are very restricted in what you can do. "For me, music was always a very important issue. I was just not prepared to compromise. I either had to do my own thing with music or do something else. You have to do a lot of compromising if you go that normal route of conducting."

@style body: Possessed of formidable energy and drive, Maier began flying as a hobby. When he gained his commercial pilot's licence, he decided that flying professionally would ­offer him a lifestyle that would provide an income for himself and his young family while giving him plenty of downtime in which to pursue his musical life. During that time, Lufthansa made use of his musical expertise and he recorded Tchaikovsky's B Minor piano concerto for the airline to use for promotional work. By 1999 he had graduated to flying all over the world, but he became restless and longed to return to full time music. "It became very boring. More than 80 per cent of it was night time."

Lufthansa's generous paternity leave ­allowed him to take his wife, Melanie, a South African, and their two children, Elena and Gabriel, to Durban. During his seven years in South Africa, he became the musical director of the Durban City Orchestra, whose repertoire he widened to include symphonic rock. "But the political problems were huge there," Maier remembers, ­"especially for a German male. There were safety and security issues, so we ­decided to leave."

In 2005 the family moved to Dubai, which Maier had visited frequently as a pilot. In January 2006, he was commissioned to ­produce a 30-minute Dubai suite for the Shopping Festival, but because of the death of Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al ­Maktoum it was cancelled. Once again, Maier began working with a ­recording studio and ­developing his plans for an orchestra. "Dubai appeals to me because of the mix of cultures. It's a fascinating environment. I did consider going back to flying because it is a solid job with a good income but it's not an exciting life. I thought instead I could jump into cold water with the plans for the orchestra and take the opportunities as they arise."

He is adamant that the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra should not be a commercial ­undertaking and hopes that the government will support it and give it a ­permanent home. "It shouldn't be about money. I have walked out of meetings with event ­management companies because they were only interested in money. They would talk about bringing orchestras from Russia for Dh200,000 and all they would be interested in was how much they could charge on top of that.

"The UAE should have its own orchestra. Every time we play the auditorium is full. It's often a last minute affair, all by word of mouth, but people flock to hear us. There's a lot of money out here but it's not being spent on an orchestra." To sustain a fully functional orchestra, Maier estimates that he needs Dh37 million a year. He points to neighbouring ­Qatar, where a 120-piece symphony orchestra was also created from nothing, backed by ­government support.

"If you want to build up an orchestra you need to bring in musicians," Maier says. "We have contacts with conservatories all over the world who are interested. But you can't do it without funding. No orchestra in the world can survive without subsidies. An orchestra is an ambassador or, at least, that's what it could be if the support was there. Currently, Maier can often be found sitting in the foyer of The Westin with his laptop on his knee and a mobile phone clamped to one ear. It is a far from satisfactory arrangement, but he has no money for an office. "We now need a mandate and a home," he says. "I want to do it properly."

Financially, the orchestra survives on corporate events. Luckily, interest is growing. Smaller groups organised by the percussionist Mike Pineguy are booked for weddings and special occasions. Next year as the orchestra's fame spreads, Maier hopes to find suitable Emirati musicians to join them. "So far no Emirati musicians have applied but they would be very welcome. Part of the problem is that children here aren't exposed to music at school and people simply don't know about the orchestra. When they do hear about us and come to our concerts people tell me all the time how proud they are to hear that there is a UAE orchestra," he says.

Meanwhile, he is working on the programme for the orchestra's first concert in October. "The first concert should be something that represents the country," Maier says. "We have come a long way since we began less than three years ago. It's all about having a vision which you can excite people with." @Email:pkennedy@thenational.ae