Classical music in Dubai

Il Divo in town as UAE's biggest orchestra loses conductor

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Dubai is home to glitzy hotels, luxury resorts and exquisite fine-dining. It hosts world-class nightlife, attracts increasingly high-profile gigs and is home to a rapidly developing arts scene. Yet classical music is conspicuously absent from its list of cultural attractions.

What little scene there is took a hefty blow recently: the UAE’s only professional orchestra suffered a huge setback after news that its conductor, Philipp Maier, has resigned. Maier established the Abu Dhabi-based UAE Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005, which became one of three internationally recognised orchestras in the Gulf, alongside the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. But this summer the conductor hung up his baton and returned to Germany, blaming a lack of financial support and awareness, and branding the UAE’s classical music scene as ‘an absolute disaster’.

‘The current lack of understanding and genuine interest [in classical music] is why I’ve had to give up my life and vision in the UAE after seven years and move back to Europe,’ said the 49-year-old composer.

View Classical music groups in Dubai
View Il Divo in Dubai

Maier’s departure could signal the end of the emirates’ only professional-standard orchestra. But if this were to happen, what would it leave us with? There are a still a handful of amateur ensembles, such as the UAE National Symphony Orchestra, which launched in Abu Dhabi this year, and Dubai Chamber Orchestra, a group of amateur expats who perform about three concerts a year.

Violinist and viola player Imogen Lillywhite is a member of both. ‘There are a few very good players in the UAE, and then there are a lot of less-good players,’ says the 33-year-old Brit. ‘There just isn’t work for classical musicians here, so it’s always going to be at a semi-professional standard. If you want professional musicians, you have to pay to bring them here.’

As such, most professional-standard performances are limited to big-name touring productions, such as Abu Dhabi Classics, or an upcoming show at Dubai World Trade Centre by ‘classical boy band’ Il Divo – commercial fare that makes promoters money, but does little to foster the growth of the local scene. However, one exception is the volunteer-run Dubai Concert Committee. Since its foundation in 1996, the committee has hosted ten free chamber concerts every year, funded entirely by donations and sponsorship.

‘When we started there was absolutely no classical music here, and today there’s not much more,’ says long-standing chair Brigitta Dagostin from Switzerland. ‘We all give up our time to promote the arts in Dubai. It’s a community service to make classical music available, something money can’t buy. Unfortunately it’s not enough and we’re still behind any European city.’

Though few of the musicians or industry types we spoke to were overflowing with enthusiasm for the city’s classical music scene, they were unanimous on what Dubai needs in order to move forward: more money, and a dedicated concert hall. Thankfully it looks like the latter could be on the cards. While old plans to build a 2,500-capacity opera house near Festival City fell flat, in March HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, announced plans to build an opera house district, alongside a new Dubai Modern Art Museum, in Downtown Dubai. And, once completed,more money may follow.

‘There’s a huge amount of money to be made from cultural tourism,’ adds Ms Dagostin, yet she believes Dubai has yet to capitalise on it. Classical music festivals attract a lot of people from around the world, the very elite with a lot of money to spend. We need this venue to bring the country forward and attract the top people in. We already have the hotels, the beaches, the attractions – now we need the arts.’

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