Classical touch

New Year’s Day saw the performance of a special programme of classical music – a cultural treat for Dubai residents and the perfect way to launch the 20th Dubai Shopping Festival

It’s a poetic tradition to celebrate the new with the old. However, the organiser of a programme of classical music to mark the start of the 20th Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) would disagree that classical music is necessarily of the past.

“Classical music is inherently modern, it’s just that nobody recognises that,” said British composer and programme organiser Joanna Marsh. “Classical music has a way that people relate to it very, very powerfully. It’s a way to express yourself emotionally when you haven’t got any words.”

Judging by the reaction of the several thousands of people at the free performance on New Year’s Day, which featured internationally renowned performers from across the globe, Marsh may have a point. Families and friends of dozens of nationalities watched on enthralled by the 10-movement programme.

Abdullah Al Sousi, a Palestinian musician who has lived in Dubai for 40 years, enjoyed the performance alongside his wife Doaa and five-year-old daughter Tasneem. He said he hoped to see more such classical music concerts in the country. “It’s a very good idea, making it free for all people to listen,” he said. “This is good for people, for culture.”

Dubai Shopping Festival
Indian sarod masters Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan

Marsh agreed: “I feel like it’s a real opportunity, it’s a real gift. You don’t hear these things very often over here.”

Marsh, along with Shelley Frost, director of events company The Fridge, arranged the programme to reflect the diversity of Dubai and both artists and the programme were selected with Dubai’s international community in mind.

The programme was performed by the Welsh National Orchestra and directed from the podium by the leading Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, all of whom were appearing in the country for the first time. The evening also featured performances from Filipino pianist Cecile Licad, and Indian sarod masters Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan.

Zhang is the musical director of the Milan-based Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, and performs around Europe, the US and her native China. Talking after the energetic two-hour programme, her brow still glistening with perspiration, she described her excitement at having performed in the Middle East for the first time. “It’s fantastic, this place… it’s really exciting, it’s full of energy,” she enthused. “Things are so new and they’re still building everywhere, it’s great.”

Zhang said she hoped classical music would take hold in the region, particularly among the younger generation. It was a challenge on a global scale to overcome potential distractions from computers and videogames, she said. “I really think this is a matter of access,” she added. “If people have access to classical music, you naturally accept it and you appreciate it and you know how to listen.”

Thursday’s performance was also the UAE premiere of Marsh’s 2009 piece Kahayla, written about the speedy development of Burj Khalifa using an allegory about the eponymous Arabian horse breed.

“I wrote it in my second year here, so I was observing the beginnings of the building of Burj Khalifa,” she recalled. “I noticed a sudden change from living in the UK… the most remarkable thing was the speed at which everything seemed to happen. This is a piece about a horse race, which reflects the race in which Dubai exists.”

Marsh added that she thought the musical performance was a fitting way to launch Dubai’s much-anticipated annual shopping festival. “DSF have made out their desire to welcome international tourists and residents and families by putting on this free concert,” she said. “It’s a great way to kick off the festival, because music is such a universal thing.”