Choosing the best The QPO story
Written by Orlando Kimber
One-time Doha resident and frequent visitor Orlando Kimber, whos a keen amateur musician, is delighted to find that both new music and old are thriving at the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.
In just seven years, the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO) has grown from an idea in the mind of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser into an international powerhouse that bridges Western and Arab cultures and is thrilling audiences in the worlds capitals.
So how do you make a world-class symphony orchestra? That was the question that Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser put to Kurt Meister, the man behind the evolution of QPO. Meister was a good person to ask, as hed been managing director of the Bavarian Broadcasting Company, whose Symphony Orchestra was recognised as one of the top five in the world whilst under his management. He ventured that German and Austrian composers were at the heart of the canon of Western symphonic music. It therefore made sense to form an ensemble of players that could make a sound that was true to this, yet at the same time adaptable enough to meet the other criteria... to work with the best contemporary composers, conductors, and soloists from the Middle East.The solution was to find outstanding musicians in their 20s and 30s whose minds would be open to the challenge.
Meister drew up a list of potential jurors from a pool of principal players in major orchestras who intimately knew the sound that he needed to capture. The jury was then commissioned and spent seven weeks on the road, travelling to Egypt and nine European countries to audition the shortlist of 2,600 with one simple instruction from Her Highness in mind: Choose the best. This resulted in 101 seats being offered, and readily accepted by musicians from 31 countries, including a dozen of Arab lineage.
Before the QPO, Qatar had neither a Western musical culture nor a tradition of formal theatrical performance. This presented a particular challenge for the young musicians (with an average age of just 30), whose livelihoods came from a mix of performance, teaching, and recording; but the excitement of forming a brand new orchestra, together with generous salaries and benefits, reassured them.
Rehearsals in the first two years were spent in the unlikely setting of the Ladies Club at the Aspire Sports Village, and performance venues included the Ritz Carlton hotel.
This changed in December 2010 when the remarkable Katara Cultural Village opened and the orchestra at last found a home in the opulent Opera House.
Two years earlier, the QPO had established a relationship with the conductor Lorin Maazel, who had worked closely with Kurt Meister over many years at Bavarian Broadcasting. This was a crucial step forward for the orchestra, which responded brilliantly to the introduction.
Under the maestros baton, the inaugural performances in 2008 made a clear statement of their high standards. Audiences also witnessed the introduction of newly composed music into the orchestras repertoire, with a specially commissioned work from the celebrated oud player and composer Marcel Khalife.
Touring is a time-honoured way of both honing a live sound and reaching out to a wider audience, so appearances followed all over the world, in London, Milan, Paris, Vienna, Damascus, and Washington DC. A milestone invitation to play at the UN General Assembly in New York at a benefit for UN Women – a trust established to eliminate violence against women and girls – was attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who praised the QPO as the perfect example of unity in diversity by combining Eastern and Western traditions, reminding us all of our commonality.
The galvanising effect of a great conductor is well documented, so the hunt was on for a permanent Musical Director who would extend the range of what was proving to be an outstanding group of players. Immediately following her debut as a conductor with the orchestra, the choice fell upon the 30-year-old South Korean prodigy Han-Na Chang, who at the astonishing age of just 11 won the fifth Rostropovich cello competition (the maximum age of entry is 30). She went on to enjoy a glittering career as a first-class cellist with the worlds finest musicians, as well as studying philosophy at Harvard before taking up conducting. Meister is very happy and proud to have convinced her. Her experience as a string player has also helped to develop many new ideas.
Han-Na Chang instantly grasped the challenge of removing the barrier between Arabic contemporary music and the conservatoire, because music speaks directly to the heart. Using this sensibility, the obvious strength and energy of the QPO performances have been transformed into zip, drama, and brilliance, which now attracts a significant audience of Qatari nationals. Those booking tickets now ask Is Han-Na Chang playing?
Whilst the global financial crisis has caused most Western orchestras to reign in the commissioning of new music, the reverse has been true in Qatar, where 35 new works by Middle Eastern artists have been put on in the last 12 months, as well as seven world premieres, a production featuring all of the Beethoven symphonies presented over just three weeks, and an introduction to the wildly popular Arabic film music of Omar Khairat.
The schedule for 2014 has fourteen different programmes within the first three months, of which there is a visit from the Vienna Boys Choir in early March, a performance of Holsts Planets accompanied by NASA film footage in May, an appearance at the London Proms in September, outreach into schools, and more outstanding recitals and chamber music. In the words of Kurt Meister, the 101 exceptional musicians and their new musical director are working, working, working to develop a love for creativity and the appreciation of great music in Qatar.
The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra gives three concerts on February 1, 8 and 15 at the Opera House on Katara Cultural Village, with music by Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Strauss. The orchestras chamber music ensemble gives a free performance each month in the atrium of the Museum of Islamic Art, and this month the theme of the concert on February 6 is Music from the Movies, with melodies from films as diverse as Romeo and Juliet and The Flintstones. Relax and enjoy refreshments from the museums coffee shop while listening to the music. Details on qatarphilharmonicorchestra.org
Katara Cultural Village has thoughtfully brought the world to you through an array of restaurants and cafés, most of which are open throughout the day.
Perhaps you need breakfast at the French-style Chaclate before visiting one of the galleries and then, suitably inspired, move on towards lunch? Seafood (particularly hamour) is a reliable choice in Qatar, and at Lwzaar (aka The Fishmarket) you can browse the counters, pick your fish, and order the way you want it cooked. The setting is informal but smart with a contemporary feel.
Mamig (Armenian and Lebanese), Sukar Pasha (Turkish), Saffron (Indian), and Khan Farouk (Egyptian) all offer more traditional fare, with the latter striving to bring the Golden Age of 1950s Cairo to life, with live music and a pleasant verandah on which to enjoy your shisha. The consistently high standards of Sukar Pasha have resulted in a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor.
Khan Farouk Tarab
Sukar Pasha Ottoman Lounge
Chapati & Karak
La Gelateria Fina
Red Velvet Cupcakery
Qatar Airways, world’s 5-star airline, flies to more than 130 destinations worldwide.