ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- At age six, most major performing arts festivals are still searching for their identity. Italy’s famed Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds (June 26 through July 12), for example, has passed the half-century mark.
Its counterpart Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, will celebrate its 32nd season this year (May 22 through June 7). England’s venerable Bath Music Festival turns 61 this year (May 22 through June 6). And Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival (July 28 through August 22) passed 40 three years ago.
So in arts-programming terms, it’s a multiple coup for the UAE’s sixth annual Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival, which just closed, to have attracted such Western bestsellers as tenor Andrea Bocelli, the Bolshoi Ballet and Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, flutist Sir James Galway, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and cellist Nina Kotova.
In fact, it’s even more impressive that the festival also staged Lebanon’s revered Magida El Roumi, Tunisian sensation Latifa Al Arfawi, Iraqi oud master Naseer Shamma and rising Jordanian piano prodigy Karim Said along with a host of other Middle Eastern artists, including Arab oils and acrylics painter Dia Al-Azzawi.
But what’s going on in this warm Persian Gulf boomtown – the wide-avenued, wealthy big brother of Dubai is important beyond a peaceful co-exposition of leading performers from Western and Middle Eastern stages. On a balmy evening after a sandstorm scours the modern-white city, London’s Matthew Barley plays the studiedly intelligent Bach G Major solo Prelude on his 1790 Gigli cello, soulfully, serenely, eyes closed.
He then picks up an electronic cello and improvises on the piece, his bowing echoing and chattering and spinning out over the heads of the crowd as it’s processed through a computer-generated sonic cavern unimagined in the Baroque era of the work’s inspiration. This mixture is no accident – the old and new, the classical and contemporary.
The director of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious Culture and Art Institute – now undertaking a four-year building plan for a vast new complex -- talks both of preservation and of experimentation, and in Arabic traditions as well as Western. "To preserve our culture amid the effects of globalization," says Abdulla Salim Al Amri over hot tea redolent with mint, "we must invest in culture and arts, of course.
"But we are putting forward our new artists, our young composers on the stage. When the WOMAD Festival comes to Abu Dhabi (April 23 through 25), we will put our modern composers on the beach in a special presentation of new music in our traditions. This is an experiment, encouraging our composers today in the classical heritage of our region. And we’ll then take this, in exchange, to England for WOMAD there this summer (July 24 through 26).”
From the viewpoint of the Abu Dhabi festival’s founder and tireless promoter, Her Excellency Hoda Al-Khamis Kanoo, this search for new wisdom amid the genius of both Arabic and Western traditions has a harder edge, an urgent impetus.
She is part of a population in which 80 percent of residents are not Emirati, but workers from other countries, ethnicities, faiths, languages, all drawn by the explosive growth of a nation that sprang into being just 38 years ago.
“Our land stands for tolerance,” Al-Khamis Kanoo says. “It stands for looking after people. It stands for cultural dialogue. Every single day, we are a hundred nationalities, sharing, understanding each other with mutual respect.
“And this is the heart of the festival. This is what we’re sharing. And to make it better, to improve it every year, we’re working on brand quality.” You hear this “brand quality” in the Rachmaninoff Sonata for Cello and Piano played by France’s acclaimed Thibaudet and Russia’s graceful Kotova, he attentive at the keyboard while she powers through this difficult score on her 1673 Stradivarius.
Such sold-out concerts are the work of Barrett Wissman, chairman of IMG Artists and the pioneering impresario of a growing string of world festivals – Napa Valley’s Festival del Sole (July 18 through 25), Italy’s Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona (August 3 through 9) and the Singapore Sun Festival (October 3-12). He engages the top echelons of international performance for Abu Dhabi in part by knowing what these artists, themselves, need.
“We need room to do more things. But the music business is media-driven,” says Ireland’s Galway, at near 70 easily the most famous flutist working today. He is, he says, forced by market pressures to stay within the lilting Celtic idiom more often than he’d like.
“’Media-driven’ means marketing,” Galway says, rolling his eyes. “So I’m starting my own label. I’m opening a site, , to handle the commerce, myself.” The mainstream recording labels, he says, can be all too market-shy about letting major artists like him make crossover efforts into wider styles and musical vocabularies.
His new CD “O’Reilly Street,” for example, took a leap of faith on Sony Red Seal’s part – Deutsche Grammophon turned him down, he says. He teamed up for the jazz-suite music of Claude Bolling with the Grammy-nominated Cuban timba ensemble Tiempo Libre. The CD is named for an actual street in Havana with an Irish name.
And guess what,” Galway leans over and lowers his voice. “Those Tiempo Libre guys played the entire thing from memory. I think it meant a lot to them to get to do this work, like it did to me.” On the Emirates Palace stage in Abu Dhabi, Galway gets in another such non-stereotypic effort, ripping through.
The complexities of Charles-Marie Widor’s Suite for Flute and Piano with Thibaudet at the keyboard. Nothing Irish about it. And the man simply beams, flashing his golden flute in the air, at the thunder of applause that greets him and the French pianist when the piece is done.
And then, when Iraqi oud artist Shamma and Tunisian singer Latifa share the same stage, backed by a large, eagerly engaged Arabic orchestra, the singularity of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival glows with a wisdom far beyond its short six-year life.
Deep diversity -- of traditions, of cultures and even of classical and contemporary contexts – is making this one of the fastest major players to arrive on the world stage. “Today we have money, yes,” says Al Amri at the Cultural and Arts Institute. “But how long will the oil last? Fifty years? A hundred years? We are investing in culture and arts now, to be sure we will stay a part of the international community. We don’t want to be isolated someday as a developed country without a soul.”