Exporting Music from Qatar to the World

01 Jan 12:41 AM

Sector : Culture Country : Qatar

By Kurt Meister

Already Qatar has stepped onto the world stage in commerce, international affairs, journalism, sports and art, among other things. Now it is doing the same in music. As the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra approaches its five-year anniversary it increasingly looks outwards.


As I write this the Philharmonic will soon perform music by Lebanese composer Abdalla El-Masri, who writes and teaches in Kuwait. We’ll play his Matar, on the poem Rain Song by the Iraqi Poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Famed singer Oumeima El Khalil will be the soloist. We’ve already played the world premiere of his oud concerto with Charbel Rouhana as soloist. Such pieces are rarely if ever played by orchestras in Europe or North America. The Qatar Philharmonic brings them to the world.

Music from the Middle East is richer than my colleagues elsewhere imagine. Last year we performed and recorded the world premiere of Marcel Khalife’s Symphony of Return, which wove linear Arabic song into an orchestral fabric. We also played Persian music in the Middle East premiere of Behzad Ranjbaran’s Seven Passages, as well as echoes of the Beirut War in the world premiere of Rami Khalife’s Chaos Piano Concerto.

We opened the season with Egyptian Abdel-Rahim’s Jubilant Dance. We’ve performed Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s first symphonic suite, and in our new series at the Museum of Islamic Art we’ve played chamber music by another member of the Turkish Five, Ulvi Cemal Erkin. And a few months ago we gave the world premiere of the clarinet concerto of a third Turkish composer, Hasan Tura.

Here in Qatar we have Haamed Na’ama, whose Alnaham Voice we premiered recently. The Alnaham is the singer on pearl-fishing boats who inspired divers to work when pearls were the economic mainstay of the Gulf.

Qatar Philharmonic doesn’t only play new music from MENA, though. I remember with pleasure Capricho Azerbaijano by Fikret Amirov and Armenian composer Khachatur Avetisyan’s Kanun concerto. The Philharmonic played the world premiere of Parisian composer Jean-Charles Gandrille’s Violin Concerto last year, and this year we’ll premiere his double concerto for organ and piano. To illustrate how Arabic music is influencing the larger world I’d cite the American composer Daniel Schnyder’s concerto for nay, which draws on Middle Eastern idioms. The virtuoso player Bassam Saba was our soloist.

Music to Unite the World

The original idea for the Qatar Philharmonic, as envisioned by its parent Qatar Foundation, was two-fold. First, the orchestra was to bring Western music, musical performance and creation at the highest artistic level to the people of Qatar and the region. Second, the Philharmonic was to be a platform for orchestra players, composers, conductors and guest artists from the Middle East and the rest of the world to create music. The concept was that this was to help the people of Qatar, young and old, to learn, appreciate and create music. Developing intellectual capacity fits with Qatar’s goal to move from carbon economy to knowledge economy.

From the start the Philharmonic embraced this binary mission. An initial 101 players from 30 countries were chosen through competitive auditions held throughout Europe and the Middle East. In these auditions and in the years to follow artistic quality was the sole criterion. Indeed, auditions are held behind a screen, and cellphones are confiscated in order to ensure messages are not sent as a signal.

The resulting orchestra was one of the most diverse in history. Musicians trained in different schools around the world had to learn how to work together. The crucible of preparing for performances weekly forced this cooperation, which is no longer at issue. Indeed, a year ago Lorin Maazel, former music director of the New York Philharmonic, said: “The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra is taking its place among the great orchestras of the world.”

We have about a dozen musicians from the Arab world in our orchestra. I’m often asked when there will be a Qatari. We look forward to that day - indeed, we work to make that happen - yet this is impossible to forecast. Qatar has its own musical traditions, and it is overlaying music education in the Western tradition. The Qatar Music Academy, in which many of our musicians teach, is an important part of that effort. Yet imagine a Qatari student beginning their studies on the violin at the age of five. It takes 15 years to play at a professional level. Then they have to win an audition out of perhaps 100 or 200 candidates. And the particular audition they would have to win is one in Qatar. Yet it will happen.

The Maestros

The Philharmonic’s first two music directors have been both conductors and composers. Egyptian Nader Abbassi writes music with a variety of Arabic instruments and textures, often operatic in its sense of theater. We’ve enjoyed his close association with Omar Khairat, who twice has brought us his music from six decades of composing for television, cinema, ballet and the concert hall. Michalis Economou of Greece has conducted an extraordinary range of the orchestral repertoire, covering more than two dozen different programs each season. Michalis has brought us the best guest artists and compositions from his side of the Mediterranean.

The Philharmonic has traveled to Milan, London, Washington, Damascus, Vienna and Paris, playing music by Arab as well as Western composers. Yet even within the boundaries of Qatar, the orchestra reaches people from around the world. Doha’s cosmopolitan work force ensures that people from all parts of the world hear its music along with Qataris in the Opera House. Many UNESCO delegates heard the Philharmonic when it opened the Katara Amphitheater with music by Vangelis and the voices of Angela Georghiu and Roberto Alagna. The orchestra attracted hundreds of delegates from the COP18/CMP8 climate change conference to the Katara Opera House. And thousands from the World Petroleum Conference heard the Philharmonic under music director Michalis Economou.

Increasingly, the world has taken notice. In the last year alone people have heard about the Philharmonic through BBC Television and Radio, the Financial Times, The National (UAE), Le Parisien, Korea Times, The Straits Times (Singapore), Gramophone, Rolling Stone Middle East, CBS 60 Minutes, The Independent (UK), Yahoo! News and Chosun Ilbo (Korea and Japan).

Now the Philharmonic embarks on voyages of recording as well. Working with Naxos, the world’s leading classical recording group, the Philharmonic and music director Michalis Economou has already recorded the Concerto for Orchestra by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and the Symphony of Return by Marcel Khalife of Lebanon. This season the orchestra records all nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven under the baton of American conductor James Gaffigan. Naxos and the Philharmonic plan many weeks of recording for each season of Western classics as well as music from the Middle East.

The Future of Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra with Han-Na Chang

We’ve been fortunate in the choices of our first two music directors. When Han-Na Chang becomes our third in September 2013, she will be just 30 years of age, which was coincidentally the average age of our musicians when we were formed. Yet she has had an international career in music for two decades, as a cellist.

The international press has focused on the novelty of Han-Na being the first female music director in the Middle East, but that didn’t even occur to me when we named her. I’ve known Han-Na almost her whole career. She has broad knowledge and deep experience. When she conducted us in two programs last season I saw that she has a particular edge in knowing how string players think and perceive music. I know the orchestra will grow and evolve with her.

People close to the music world all know Han-Na. As a girl from South Korea, at the age of 11 she won two prizes, the First Prize and the Contemporary Music Prize, at the Fifth Rostropovich International Cello Competition in Paris. That wasn’t a competition for the young; the maximum age was something like 30. But the competition was unusual in that it didn’t have a minimum age. Since then Chang has performed everywhere of note. I saw her with the orchestras I oversaw, Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Philharmoniker. She has played with everyone: Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, Dresden, Philadelphia, Cleveland, London, Chicago and Boston.

Han-Na has moved to conducting in a serious, focused manner. She has a drive for continual development. She had a long career as a famous cellist, and now she has decided to rise to the conducting challenge. She combines her Asian roots with Western musical traditions, and is now keen to delve further into Arabic traditions and society. Even in her first appearance with the Qatar Philharmonic, Han-Na conducted the world premiere of Houtaf Khoury’s Angel of Light Piano Concerto. Both Qatar and the world look to the music she will bring to it as music director.

The Qatar Philharmonic plays at the UN General Assembly

The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO) had an unusual opportunity in June 2012, to play at the United Nations 66th General Assembly as part of a special cultural event held with the aim of promoting UN Women and to boost support for the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. Performed in New York, the concert was attended by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, UN Goodwill Ambassador and actress Mira Sorvino, and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, among others. “The QPO is the perfect example of unity in diversity by combining Eastern and Western traditions, reminding us all of our commonality,” said Ki-moon.

The performance was organized by Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the UN General Assembly, who likewise praised the young orchestra. “The Qatar Philharmonic is the leading professional ensemble in the Middle East. Much like the UN itself, the orchestra serves as a bridge between cultures of the world,” he said.

It was not the first time the QPO had played in New York. In 2009, renowned maestro Lorin Maazel conducted the orchestra at its international debut program at the Kennedy Center Opera House, performing works by Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife, and Beethoven’s immortal Fifth Symphony.

Khalife has been a central figure in the QPO since it was established in 2008. In February, 2013, Khalife performed his Arab Spring-inspired suite “Oriental” with the QPO, and the Leipzig Radio Choir sang in Arabic accompanied by the orchestra, at the opera house in Katara Cultural Village.

Kurt Meister
Executive director, Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra
In 2007, Kurt Meister was nominated Managing Director of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, and in 2011 he was named Executive Director. Born in Munich, Germany, Meister was a bassoonist in the Bavarian State Opera. He than managed the Bavarian State Opera, the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Broadcast Company, and the Munich Radio Orchestra. The Symphony Orchestra under the management of Meister was recognized as one of the top five orchestras in the world. 


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