Tchaikovsky in the Desert: Abu Dhabi and Doha


The Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi might best be described as a kind of gargantuan beached luxury cruise ship, a self-contained, environmentally disastrous playground for the absurdly rich. Its Web site unabashedly boasts that the hotel has a daily laundry capacity of six tons, that it possesses 102 elevators with a maximum capacity of 55 persons per elevator, and that 5 kilos of gold are consumed yearly by hotel guests in the form of dessert embellishments. The rumor that there was a gold automat in the main lobby of the hotel quickly spread throughout the Staatskapelle, and search parties were deployed before and after rehearsals in the hotel’s auditorium to find the fascinating device, whose existence we did indeed confirm. While our own hotel, located across the street and considerably less spectacular in every respect, served only water, juice, and ‘mocktails’ at the bar, the opulent lobby bar of the Emirates Palace displayed a remarkable number of birdbath-sized silver champagne coolers, many of them containing more than one bottle, some even toting magnums.

The Abu Dhabian audience was less than euphoric after the first half of our first concert, which consisted of Mozart’s D-Major Coronation Concerto, performed by our maestro Barenboim himself and conducted as usual from the keyboard with his inimitable mixture of batonless technique and coercive facial expressions. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, however, was received with sufficient enthusiasm to merit the encore we played afterwards, Glinka’s frenetically energetic Ruslan and Ludmila Overture.

Having attempted, unsuccessfully, to discover and explore a city center in the afternoon, a few of us decided to give in to the ubiquitous Gulf culture of luxury and decadence, and headed for the Intercontinental Hotel after the concert for some real cocktails at the Yacht Club. Sitting in pillow-laden rattan lounge chairs on the terrace facing the yacht harbor, we drank delicious ‘luxury mojitos’ (rum, lime juice, and champagne in huge glasses with precious little crushed ice) while attempting to converse over the deafening blare of beat-heavy music from speakers all around us.

Delicious as those cocktails were, they failed to ease the pain of getting up at 9:00 the next morning – 6:00 AM for us central Europeans – in order to have breakfast before the 11:00 children’s concert. It is a well-known fact that musicians are nocturnal creatures, and 8:00 AM is not exactly the time of day most of us long to play Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The musician, however, is also by necessity a mobile creature, and jet-lagged concerts are par for the course. While my stand partner and I both inexplicably had difficulties focusing on the surprisingly numerous notes on the page, the young audience was appreciatively attentive and astonishingly quiet. The average age, excepting adult supervisors, seemed to be around seven, and Barenboim picked three lucky (or mortified, depending upon the point of view) children throughout the course of the concert and heaved them up onto the stage so as to better understand their questions, which ranged from “does anyone else here play the cello?” to “what is the highest instrument of the orchestra?” This last was illustrated by Simone van der Velde, our piccolo flutist, who at Barenboim’s request played a notoriously difficult run from the third movement of the symphony.

Between movements, Barenboim paced back and forth before the audience, introducing all the instruments of the orchestra and explaining various aspects of making and listening to music. By 1:00 PM, we were all back in the hotel, where most of us chose to recover from the short night by the pool or at the small strip of beach which afforded a view not of the horizon or distant islands but of a small mountain of reclaimed land directly across from us, a mammoth shopping mall including an Ikea to the right, and the small cluster of skyscrapers that constitute downtown Abu Dhabi to the left. A few of the more enterprising members of the orchestra rented a car and drove off into the desert. Photos of musicians leaving poetic trails of footsteps up the steep sides of dunes were later displayed proudly on mobile phones while waiting for the next plane to Doha that evening.

After a quick trip to my (amazingly beautiful, incredibly luxurious) room in the Grand Hyatt Doha to unpack and freshen up, I headed for the lobby, where I was met by Mohamed Saleh Ibrahim, an Egyptian oboist from the Qatar Symphony Orchestra and a good friend of mine from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. He took four of us out to an excellent Arabic restaurant in town where we stuffed ourselves with Middle Eastern meze and puffed on water pipes full of scented tobacco. Afterwards we proceeded to the home of Reham Fayed, an Egyptian flutist, also from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, who spent over a year in Berlin as a member of the Staatskapelle’s orchestral academy. She had invited several of her friends from the orchestra to a stunning array of delectable Arabic pastries. The television in the living room was tuned to Al Jazeera with breaking news of the protests in Egypt; Mohamed and Reham were both deeply concerned about their relatives back in Cairo, whom they were able to reach only intermittently on Egyptian landlines.

Qatar, more than any of the other Gulf countries striving for international recognition, has made a serious effort to create a living cultural center, as evidenced in its not-yet-completed Cultural Village. Its 99-hectare area includes a massive neo-Roman amphitheater, several galleries and an opera house, where we performed on the evening of the 30th. Great amounts of money have obviously been poured into the construction of the seaside complex, which in some ways resembles a computer animation in its too-perfect realization of quaint Middle Eastern details like the two cone-shaped pigeon houses that stand next to the beautiful mosaic-covered mosque near the stage entrance of the opera house. Less attention has been paid, apparently, to the education of the audience in classical concert hall etiquette, as we discovered during the Mozart piano concerto on the first half of the concert. If the noise had been limited to the people entering (and leaving) the hall through usher-manned doors throughout the duration of the piece, it might have been excusable; however, these noises were accompanied by constant conversation from various corners of the hall and regular beeps and rings from cell phones. During the cadenza in the third movement, the full-voiced conversation reached such a pitch that Barenboim turned halfway around on his piano stool with an upturned palm, right hand still on the keys, poised to continue when the noise died down.

Perhaps even more surprising than the level of ambient noise in the hall was the fact that the entire front row of seats remained unoccupied during the first half of the concert. The empty reclining plush seats with double armrests (and facing a row of tables sporting small flower vases and two bottles of mineral water each) could be attributed to the absence of the emir and his entourage. Given the unrest in Egypt, he had deemed it inappropriate to take part in an enjoyable cultural event.

Before playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Barenboim turned to the audience from his podium and made a short speech (one that would have been superfluous at the children’s concert in Abu Dhabi) explaining the intensity of our concentration while playing and the importance of maintaining silence during the concert. “You will have more from us,” he said, “if we are able to concentrate properly.” This statement was met with hearty applause and was indeed followed by an impressive silence throughout the symphony.

The announcement had the desired effect: we concentrated, we played our hearts out, and the audience demanded an encore. Just as Barenboim was concluding his introduction of the piece we were about to play, “Melisande” from Sibelius’s “Pelleas et Melisande,” a lone cell phone sounded during a pause in his explanation of the era in which the work was composed. He continued, unruffled: “ – and there were no mobile phones at that time!”

Elena Cheah

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