By Joseph Fahim
Of the various cultural festivals held in the Arab world, the Abu Dhabi Festival stands in a unique position. The vast majority of cultural events organized in the region emphasize the new; creating a platform for young talents to be discovered by different audiences.
A few number of festivals, such as the Arabic Music Festival in Egypt, focus on heritage art, assembling some of the finest talents in the region to introduce older art forms to a younger audience.
The Abu Dhabi Festival doesn’t belong to any of those categories. The festival is an international celebration of all forms of classical art, presenting some of the greatest classical musicians in the world alongside young voices from the region and established artists pertaining to traditional schools of art. The unique position of the festival has been boosted this year, with an expanded program chockfull of pearls.
The Abu Dhabi Festival was founded in 2004 under the patronage of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then minister of information and culture, and is now under the management of Hoda Al Khamis Kano. As in most cultural events hosted by the UAE, the aim of the fest is to “advocate cross cultural understanding,” promoting Middle Eastern art and, above all, to supplement the transformation of the richest Emirate into an important metropolis of a robust, significant culture scene.
Thus, the festival didn’t only contain performances, but lectures, workshops and other educational programs. Adopting a low-key approach, the Abu Dhabi Fest has become one the rare patrons of serious art.
The first edition of the fest was modest in comparison to subsequent ones, presenting a joint performance by celebrated French pianist Racha Arodaky and revered American cellist Gary Hoffman and a concert by the master oud player Naseer Shamma’s group, Al Oyoin.
With every passing year, the festival’s line-up continued to swell, featuring larger-scale programs with bigger names from all over the world while persevering its primary objective and vision.
Among the numerous notable companies and artists hosted in previous editions are the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, State Hermitage Orchestra and Lebanese composer Elias Rahbani in 2007; the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Egyptian singer Khaled Selim and the Bolshoi Ballet and Orchestra in 2008; Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, Lebanese chanteuse Magda El Roumi, great Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Britain foremost flute player Sir James Galway in 2009; veteran Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and the National Polish Radio Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra, Salzburg Marionette Theater and the hugely popular multinational operatic group Il Divo in 2010.
The line-up for this year’s installment is as stellar and eclectic as previous ones, boasting world-renowned musicians, Arab stars, new productions and various other activities.
The festival opened on March 19 with a performance by the world’s most famous sitar player Anoushka Shankar in her debut concert in the Arab world. Along with Shankar, the other major headliner this year is nine-time Grammy Award winner Natalie Cole, the daughter of American jazz legend Nat King Cole. Also performing for the first time in the Arab world, Cole will take the Emirates Palace Auditorium on April 4.
Maxim Vengerov, one of the most acclaimed violin players in the world, was one of the early attractions of the festival. The Russian musician performed compositions by Rossini and Tchaikovsky alongside the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Russia’s oldest symphonic ensemble.
Belgo-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui gave Abu Dhabi a taste of modern dance with his highly ambitious production “Sutra.” Seventeen monks from the Shaolin Temple in China were recruited for the show which combined Kung Fu and Tai Chi with contemporary dance.
Among the most interesting offerings this year was the Arab world premiere of Globe Education at Shakespeare’s Globe’s production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Globe Education is one of the largest arts education programs in the UK, designing inventive adaptations of classical texts for children and young adults.
For lovers of classical dance, the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hanover company promises an evening of exotic wonders with “La Bayadère,” a grand production set in Ancient India. “La Bayadère” will be staged on March 30 and 31.
The British Royal Opera House adds a touch of elegance to the line-up with their star-studded production “Beloved Friend.” A galaxy of opera singers, ballet dancers and actors brings to life the long-distance love story between Russian composer Piotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky and his muse Nadezhda von Meck. Written by Oscar-winning playwright Sir Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”), “Beloved Friend” will have its Arab world premiere on April 2.
The Met in HD, an initiative aiming to take the Metropolitan productions outside the theater, has been growing in popularity in various parts of the world, including Egypt (the screenings of the operas have become a staple fixture at the Cairo Opera House’s Small Theater in the past couple of years). Abu Dhabi hosts the latest Met production, Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (Ring Cycle), starring Bryn Terfel and Deborah Voigt, on March 28, April 1 and 3.
Classical Arabic music is represented in this year’s edition with “Bayt Al Farabi,” a series of concerts by Anwar Abudragh and Maqamat from Iraq, Göksel Baktagir from Turkey, and Faisal Al Sari from the UAE, investigating the legacy of 9th century musician, philosopher and scientist Abu Nasr Muhammad Al Farabi.
Celebrated Lebanese crooner Fadel Shaker comes out of his short-lived retirement with a tribute concert — the centerpiece of the Arabic program — to the Arab world’s greatest singers such as Om Kolthoum, Farid Al-Atrash and Najat on April 6.
In addition to the musical and theater productions, the festival hosts an art exhibition titled “Gestures of Light” by Iraqi calligrapher Hassan Massoudy at the Emirates Palace and Ghaf Gallery. The exhibit encompasses stages of Massoudy’s career in addition to new paintings and a selection of his unpublished writings.
Unlike the vast majority of the region’s fests, no works featured in the Abu Dhabi are related to the Arab Spring; no trace of politics is detected in the works at offer. The main emphasis of the Abu Dhabi Festival is art and art only. In a year marred by opportunistic endeavors striving for attention, a fest like Abu Dhabi feels like a breath of fresh air.
Follow Daily News Egypt next week for a full report on the fest from Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi Festival closes on April 15.
Ballet performance ‘La Bayadère.’
Lebanese crooner Fadel Shaker.