Dubai Chamber Orchestra

Dubai's longest running classical ensemble prepares for its 10th anniversary

Barnaby Priest
Barnaby Priest

As the emirate’s longest-running classical ensemble, the Dubai Chamber Orchestra prepares to mark its tenth birthday with a celebratory concert. Rob Garratt hears their story, from conductor Barnaby Priest

In much of the world, an orchestra celebrating its tenth anniversary wouldn’t be a big deal. Many countries can boast classical orchestras with a lineage dating back centuries and the news that a community-run ensemble is turning ten would be lucky to command a few lines in the local newspaper. But in Dubai, a place with little tradition of Western classical music and where the bulk of the expat population stays just a few years, the idea of an orchestra lasting a decade is rather more laudable.

When the Dubai Chamber Orchestra took to the stage for the first time, at The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management in March 2003, there was no other formal classical performance ensemble in the UAE, according to musical director Barnaby Priest. And when the same orchestra assembles to perform an anniversary programme at the Saudi German Hospital Conference Centre on Thursday June 13, it’s safe to say the group has outlived any other local ensemble.

Over the past decade the amateur Dubai Chamber Orchestra has consistently performed around three concerts a year, offering both UAE musicians a chance to formally practice and perform, and delivering recitals to an audience otherwise starved of, or unfamiliar with, the canon of Western classical music. It has been guided by two simple principles; musicians are not paid, and performances are free.

The orchestra was founded in 2002 by Linda Brentano and Philip Cree, who served as conductor until 2006, when Benjamin Druffel took over the role.

When Barnaby joined the string section in 2005 there were more than 30 players, a figure that had plummeted to just 16 when he took up the baton four years later. Today the orchestra is at its strongest yet, with around 40 steady players. ‘Because of the very nature of Dubai, people come and go,’ says Barnaby, a 58-year-old Brit. ‘There have been a number of other orchestras, but for some reason or other they’ve all fallen by the wayside. We’ve been consistent in our performances because these are concerts people want to perform and people want to hear.’

Today the musicians that converge at Safa Private School for weekly rehearsals are a welcome reminder of the range of Dubai’s cosmopolitan communities. ‘When we started out it was a [predominantly European and Northern American] endeavour,’ says Barnaby, before listing the nationalities currently enrolled – ‘Syrian, Pakistani, Russian, Korean, American, Lebanese, Belgian, Japanese, Emirati...’ We stop him when he reaches 17.

‘It’s a microcosm of Dubai society,’ he adds with pride.’

The orchestra’s achievements will be formally marked with next week’s tribute concert, which features a typically diverse programme, including Shostakovich’s dramatic Chamber Symphony Op 110a, the romantic overture to Rossini’s La Scala di Seta, a 20th century folk song from Australian pianist Percy Grainger’s Molly on the Shore and even a new arrangement of a work by Barnaby – who composes alongside his day job as an administrator at Zayed University – called Needs Must.

Over the past decade the Dubai Chamber Orchestra has done an immeasurable amount for classical music in the region, and there’s every hope the ensemble will host a similar celebration ten years from now.
‘We haven’t got a huge mission statement to be the best orchestra in the Middle East,’ says Barnaby, ‘We’re a community orchestra that serves the community in which it exists. As long as people who love music continue to come together, it will continue to exist.’
The Dubai Chamber Orchestra perform at the Saudi German Hospital Conference Centre, Al Barsha, on Thursday June 13 at 8pm. Follow the orchestra on Twitter at @DXBChamberOrch

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