x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Good company

Chopin, summer, great eats and an actor who might actually master the Robin Hood accent.

Krzysztof Penderecki conducts the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra on Saturday.
Krzysztof Penderecki conducts the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra on Saturday.

Famous conductor, virtuoso pianist and national orchestra add up to greatness for Chopin's bicentennial The pianist Krzysztof Jablonski playing Chopin at the Abu Dhabi Festival's simply stunning opening concert had me reaching for my handkerchief. The Polish conductor Krzysztof Penderecki's compositions were also part of the opening gala evening, dark and brilliantly gloomy, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. They just oozed the grim suffering of Poland and its bloody struggles on the road to democratic stability.

The combination of a virtuoso pianist from a country that has suffered so much playing with his national orchestra and its most famous conductor in Chopin's bicentennial year was mesmerising. Chopin's Piano Concerto in E minor Op 11 No 1 was one of the first classical long-playing records that I owned. I played it until it was worn and scratched on an old box record player in grotty student digs. I think the pianist was Arthur Rubinstein but it was so long ago I can't be sure.

The record saw me through a couple of broken hearts and is second on my list of music to cry by. Albinoni's Adagio still holds the number-one slot. I'm not a big fan of child prodigies playing works such as this, so maybe I was just in the mood to listen to a grown-up pianist. Jablonski is 45 and has such a strong and masterful touch. He filled the Emirates Palace auditorium with the tumbling notes and yet you could have heard a pin drop as he began the deeply romantic middle movement.

One can marvel at the dexterity of a teenage concert pianist - and there's no denying their pulling power in concert halls and music stores around the world - but I like musicians who have lived a little. Perhaps they've had their hearts broken once or twice, lost a loved one or been blown away by some deeply emotional life event. I have absolutely no idea if Jablonski, who emigrated to Calgary, Canada, about 10 years ago, has lived such a life, but he's old enough to feel the music in a different, more mature way, and it comes across when you close your eyes and listen to someone like him playing.

Yet again, I couldn't help thinking how lucky we are to be able to hear the world's best in Abu Dhabi. The rest of the audience certainly seemed to feel the same, leaping to its feet and clapping till Jablonski came back on stage and played two more pieces to thunderous applause. The auditorium looked its best, decked out with dark red and white flowers, Poland's national colours. I bumped into a Polish girlfriend on the way out and she was a bubbling mass of emotional pride. When I remarked that she and her entire family had driven down from Dubai for the concert, she just said: "It's Chopin. I'm Polish." As if there was no further need of an explanation.

There wasn't. Anyone would have been proud to have been born Polish that night. The Aloft's variation of Irish stew had St Patrick's Day partygoers licking their lips Speaking of national pride, St Patrick's Day was celebrated this year at a party given by the Irish ambassador Ciaran Madden in the delightful rooftop garden of the Aloft Hotel at the Exhibition Centre. It's never too difficult to get an Irish party going, and this was no exception. But some ingenious chef came up with an innovation that surely takes some beating: Irish stew on a stick.

It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you're preparing canapés, but boy, did it disappear quickly. Juicy pieces of lamb, carrot and potato cooked in tasty gravy served on cocktail sticks were wolfed down, much to the amusement of one waiter, who kept dashing back into the kitchen for more. It wasn't the traditional Irish stew, which is a rather watery affair when cooked properly, but a deliciously adapted, thicker version.

Judging by the specks of gravy on men's ties, Abu Dhabi dry cleaners will have been busy all week. Text speak: it's unprofessional Parting with hard-earned cash is never a hugely pleasant experience, but when I make an effort to pay my phone bill on time I do expect a bit of respect. That does not include a message in "text speak" from Etisalat. It's just a bit too casual for my liking. Maybe it's an age thing, but then I'm old enough to remember the days when bank managers wore suits and were highly respected members of the community who knew the names of all their customers and would never dream of calling my mother anything other than Mrs Kennedy. Complete strangers calling me by my first name still irritates me.

Text speak is the language of the young and, to be fair, it seems that only one or two Etisalat accounts staff use it. Most of them spell out the complete word, even long ones such as "authorised", although they use the American spelling. So to whoever it is who thanked me for my payment recently with the message "Thank u for ur payment", thank you for the thank you but in future please don't do it in text speak. When it comes to my money I like formality.

Friendly atmosphere and good food Frankie Dettori may only be five feet five inches in his stockinged feet, but he has such a big personality. He walked into his restaurant the other night in the Fairmont Hotel Abu Dhabi all smiles and hugs, and soon the place was buzzing with laughter and chatter. It was his first visit to this particular Frankie's, the restaurant chain he started with Marco Pierre White, and he made straight for the kitchens, chatting to staff and posing for photographs.

He is in town for Saturday's Dubai World Cup, and although he has engaged in a lifelong battle to keep his weight down to jockey level, he loves his food. He tucked into a warm lobster salad and pan-fried sea bass rather than toy with a lettuce leaf or two. He weighs 55kg and trains every day. If he has a big meal, he just spends longer in the gym the next day. "Whatever you put into your mouth, you have to get it out again," he says in his colourful Italian cockney accent. "I have to be careful but I eat healthy food."

Dettori, who presented me with a signed copy of the cookbook he published with White, says preparing food is "a way of life" for Italians and he likes nothing better than to have friends and family around for a meal using a recipe that his mother passed on to him. His favourite is home-made pasta parmigiana. The restaurant was full on Sunday night with a mix of guests including families with young children, Emirati women in abayas having a girls' night out, businessmen and holiday-makers. The atmosphere is casual. My meal of seared foie gras followed by spaghetti vongole was excellent and the portion size just right.

Dettori, who will be 40 this year, is as passionate as ever about both his food and his racing. He will, of course, be wearing the Godolphin colours on Saturday and is as keen as ever to show the rest of the field his heels. Finally, a welcome accent in the title role Robin Hood has had many incarnations on the silver screen. There have been more than 120 versions of the adventures of the legendary outlaw who roamed Sherwood Forest with his band of merry men. Actors who have played him in a variety of styles and accents include Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, with their US versions of cut-glass British accents, Sean Connery, with his Scottish burr, and Kevin Costner, who wisely made no attempt at a Nottingham accent.

Now the role is getting a more authentic touch in a new movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring the Australian actor Russell Crowe speaking in the local dialect. Strewth cobber, whatever next? Crowe has been taking lessons with Hollywood's top voice coach - or should I say "tekking" lessons Dear knows what the audiences will make of his dropped aitches and greetings such as "Ay up duck", but I'm all for a bit of realism in Lincoln green, even if the production was filmed in Kent rather than Nottingham because Sherwood Forest doesn't have enough trees these days.

The swashbuckling Crowe, who was actually born in New Zealand but moved to Australia with his family as a boy, is otherwise a perfect fit for Robin Hood, and the regional accent will certainly be better than the plummy vowels of Flynn. This year, I'm not playing tour guide Summer has definitely arrived. My sunglasses are steaming up, my skin is peeling after a few hours on the beach and the weekly treks to Choithram's laundry have begun.

It's a fabulous time of the year but I'm beginning to be a bit more selective about my visitors. Now into my third summer in the UAE, I'm also learning to say no to acquaintances who I know are just looking for a cheap holiday. Old friends are no trouble. I tell them to come in pairs so that I don't feel guilty about leaving them to their own devices. Those who arrive empty-handed, don't leave a tip for my wonderful cleaner or don't strip their bed when they're leaving just aren't being invited back. I hope I don't sound too churlish but this year I want to enjoy the early summer myself instead of turning myself into a cross between a harassed seaside landlady and a manic tour guide.