Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra
Written by Rachel Morris
A bold experiment in a country better known for its financial wealth than its cultural one, the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO) is redefining western and near eastern concepts of music.
“It’s an adventure,” says QPO cellist Christoph Schmitz. “I know that there is a big richness in this country (Qatar). That they are able to combine the two cultures, the Western culture and the Arabic culture.”
Schmitz and his 100 other musician colleagues were enticed to Qatar as part of the great adventure that is the QPO – one of the boldest and most successful experiments in recent orchestral history.
In June 2007, Kurt Meister, formerly general manager of the Bavarian State Opera was asked to undertake an intriguing mission – build an orchestra from scratch in the tiny desert peninsula nation of Qatar.
“It was exactly three years ago that I was asked to create an orchestra of international standard,” says Meister. “In the beginning it was very difficult because a symphonic orchestra was a new concept in this region.”
Today, the QPO has achieved what other orchestras with long histories and more obvious pedigrees dream of: concerts in Italian opera house La Scala, the famed Kennedy Center in Washington DC and in London’s Royal Albert Hall. Each programme saw them performing Western standards and boldly introducing Arabic/oriental music to new audiences.
Under the umbrella of the Qatar Foundation, chaired by H. H. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of the Emir of Qatar, Meister and Lebanese music legend Marcel Khalife, who is Artistic Adviser and Resident Composer for QPO, set about auditioning more than 3,000 musicians in Europe and Cairo.
The result was 101 highly trained and committed musicians from around the globe including Europe (predominately Germany) and the Middle East hailing from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Kuwait – all of whom moved to Doha, Qatar to implement this “experiment”.
“It is a bridge between both cultures,” Meister, says. “When we are on tour outside Qatar, it is important for us to not only play Western classical music because the audience expects something different from us, because we come from Doha,” he says. “The main idea is to combine, to have Arabic pieces and Western pieces.”
At its inaugural concert in Doha in October 2008, the QPO played the familiar including Ravel’s Bolero, as well as new and innovative pieces like Marcel Khalife’s specially commissioned Arabian Concerto.
“The members of the orchestra are interested in combining the two cultures, the Western and the Arabic cultures, which is an amazing thought,” says Schmitz, who admits he and his European-trained colleagues find the oriental pieces challenging. “It’s learning a new way. This crossover is still an experiment and it’s still developing. All the musicians in the orchestra are very interested in this music and how to understand it.”
Musicians like Schmitz and his Syrian-born colleague violist Maria Arnaout, relish the opportunity to fuse eastern and Western music in the QPO’s performances.
“You know we are performing classical music, it’s something tricky to bring to these countries (like Qatar) because it has no history here,” Arnaout says. “Classical music is the result of human intellect; it goes beyond the borders of where it was composed. We have to look at it as something universal, because the values the music carries are global. When Beethoven writes, this is universal.
“We have to open the door for our own voice to be heard. The orchestra is performing pieces by Arab composers – we are hearing different styles. My ears and my soul of course I am used to it. It’s very nice to explore, it’s very nice to put things together.”
Besides crossing cultural divides, real or imagined, Arnaout says ensembles like the QPO are changing attitudes towards music and art in the Arab world.
“It’s really important that Qatar is investing in culture because the gulf region is so much different to other regions in the Arab world,” says Arnaout who was concert master in the Syrian National Orchestra. “It’s really important that they are thinking of opening this new door, because it’s important for the image, it’s important for the culture. This is a very long-term project. It’s good that people have a long-term view.”
Arnaout, who formed a children’s orchestra in her homeland, says projects like the QPO encourage people to “explore new ways of expression” in the Arab world and beyond.
“When you see what is happening, then of course it changes how people look at things,” she says. “Music in the Arab world is still looked on as not something like a career. But recently this is changing especially here. The QPO is on such a high level that it really impresses people.”
“I think this is an amazing gift I have to be a musician, and to be able to travel and experience all the different cultures in this world.”
Meister sees a time in the not-too-distant future where performances of the QPO are recorded and sold like the great orchestras of the world. As yet there is no Qatari musician in the orchestra, but Meister is hopeful this will happen. “Give it time,” he says.
In the meantime, with a European tour planned for later this year, Meister is looking forward to a new chapter in the short but vibrant history of the QPO – the imminent move to the orchestra’s new home in the landmark Cultural Village in Doha’s West Bay. The orchestra currently has a temporary home in a hall within the precinct built for the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.
But Cultural Village is more than a village. It is envisaged to be the home of the country’s burgeoning arts community, with an opera house, amphitheatre and housing for various arts projects and is expected to open in late 2010.
“It’s the most important thing to have a home, a space to practice, space to make chamber music,” Meister says. “This will be very important. The Middle East is very much a new possibility.”
FUSING EAST AND WEST
Very clear differences exist between Western and eastern music. Much Arabic music, especially traditional, is based on an emphasis on melody and rhythm.
“There is no contrast, it’s all singular,” says Kurt Meister. “It seems for us that sometimes it is played wrong. But it is not; it is another kind of music. In traditional Arabic music there is melody but not a harmony. Everyone plays the same melody.”
And unlike the western chromatic scale of music, with its 12 equally spaced pitches, the Arabic scale uniquely uses quarter notes or in between notes.
To the ear trained for western music, it can seem that these notes are ‘wrongly played’. “Quarter tonality is a totally different tonality,” says QPO cellist Schmitz. “It is new. It’s an amazing challenge particularly for those who studied in Europe.”
The oud, an integral part of Arab orchestral music, is one of the most recognised Arabic instruments and resembles a lute.
Avoiding wrong notes
Temperatures in Doha can reach up to 50?C in the summer, with high levels of humidity. This poses special challenges to the musicians in the QPO. Bows for cellos and violins are made from horsehair and in the humidity they can stretch and lose tension, resulting in loss of tune.
With little in the way of expertise in the region, experts from Europe come to Qatar every three to four months to care for the instruments.
With no Qatari performers in the QPO as yet, in 2009, the Qatar Foundation established the Qatar Music Academy to nurture homegrown talent.
Due to open its doors in late 2010, the academy will also be housed at Cultural Village in Doha. The first students will be Qatari children aged between nine and eleven who show aptitude and musical talent.
The Academy, the idea of H. H. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, is aimed at grooming future generations and to develop the academy as one of the best in the world.
Like other academies, the QMA will also teach the children a full educational curriculum.