World premieres mark a triumphant welcome for the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Two pieces, one museum.
Two compositions, of a similar length, written by two men, of the same generation - both world premiere commissions inspired by the forthcoming Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum which is making history, without even being open yet.
The two talents were Emirati Faisal Al Saari and France’s Bruno Mantovani – both composers at the forefront of their country’s respective music scenes. At their disposal, both composers had the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester but the way they employed this 120-piece ensemble to enact their visions of the Louvre were polar opposites of the same sonic spectrum.
Taking place under the stars at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Wednesday, the Louvre’s official pre-opening concert was titled Universal Expressions, but the two composers did much to plant the traditions of their home nations at the heart of this ongoing cultural dialogue.
The evening opened with Al Saari’s piece, Zayed’s Dream, named symbolically for the father of UAE, Sheikh Zayed. Bravely pitting Emirati melodies, scales and rhythms in the palette of a traditional western orchestra, this groundbreaking work represents a triumphant achievement for the composer and his nation alike.
Al Saari himself was the soloist, in the style of a concerto, his oud locked in a dialogue with the huge western ensemble. These were two equal voices, at times Al Saari supplying rhythmic vamps while the orchestra dances Arabic-tinged melodies around him; at others his snaking oud lines brought to the fore, while the strings carve sudden swathes punctuating his musical speech.
Al Saari’s playing was clear and crisp throughout, with some particularly shivering vibrato in the mournful second movement, based on the traditional poem Ayala, an expression of sadness following Sheikh Zayed’s death.
More novel fusions came from the rear of the stage, where a troupe of ten Emirati percussionists stood, keeping a steady, lurching beat throughout much of the piece. It was incredible to behold an orchestra this large necessarily locked into the swaying march of khaleeji rhythms, the ensemble’s own might collared and leashed to these ancient, desert-worn beats.
Entitled Once Upon a Time, Mantovani’s symphonic poem was announced by a ricochet of percussion, before silence fell. Next, droning strings start to swell, until a steady drum roll breaks out, passed around the back ranks of the stage. Slowly these contrasting textures build and blend, spiralling into an almighty orchestral eruption, thunderous waves of sound breaking, the listener adrift in a strange, dangerous, beguiling sea of sound.
Conducted expertly by Christoph Eschenbach, the level of control and detail required of the orchestra to bring such a microscopically arranged work to life was breathtaking.
With just fleeting discernible melodic fragments to latch onto amid the storm, texture, space and suspense were key. Mantovani emotively exploited the expanded sonic scope of such a large ensemble; the strings passed eerie drones across the stage to chilling effect, while the percussionists frequently leapt out of the dark.
This is music which etches images in the mind – but the pictures it paints aren’t always pretty. At one stage the ensemble takes on the steady chug of machinery. Out front, soloist Gautier Capuçon tore strange, primal howls from the four strings of his cello.
Whatever the title, it’s not clear this fairytale has a happy ending. But the attentive listener is rewarded with a frenetic ride of mental intoxication. It’s hard to imagine the last time music this “modern”, vibrant or challenging was performed in the GCC, and when such a performance took place, it probably was not the latest world premiere from a feted international talent.
The debut performance of these two vastly different pieces marks a spiritual as well as artistic triumph for Abu Dhabi, the UAE, and beyond – much like the Louvre itself.
The evening closed with a stirring performance of Debussy’s symphonic masterpiece La Mer, a fittingly reflective, impressionistic and glorious coda to this very special celebration of sound and image alike.