Page last updated at 14:26 GMT, Thursday, 30 April 2009 15:26 UK

Abu Dhabi music festival wins plaudits

Matthew Barley workshop
A Bach workshop for children run by Matthew Barley

By Robert Hillier
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Just six years old, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival is drawing some of the biggest names on the classical music scene.

Andrea Bocelli the Italian tenor and the Bolshoi Orchestra performed to 11,000 people with the marble dome of the newly opened Emirates Palace hotel - the most expensive in the world - as a backdrop.

They were received with standing ovations and cheering more often associated with rock concerts than classical performances.

At the city's British school, Matthew Barley, one of the world's leading cellists, took part in a Bach workshop for children at the school. The workshop was interspersed with improvisations on the electric cello played through Barley's computer.

To preserve our culture amid the effects of globalization we must invest in culture and arts. Today we have money, but in 50 years or 100 years who knows?
Abdullah Salim al-Amri
Abu Dhabi Art and Culture Foundation

Everything in Abu Dhabi appears touched by its recent arrival of the United Arab Emirates on the world stage. The UAE has attracted international golf, cricket, football and even Formula One.

Abu Dhabi, the UAE's capital, is now one of the world's wealthiest cities.

Sir James Galway, famous flautist for over 40 years, believes the Abu Dhabi festival could yet become the world's biggest.

"When you see names like Bocelli and the Bolshoi Ballet, these are people anyone wants to be associated with. The way they do things here, the ambition, this could rival Lucerne or the Proms".

There is no doubt that the audiences in Abu Dhabi couldn't get enough - filling venues and paying $200 for the top tickets.

But there were rumblings of criticism that some of the performances were below the standard that more critical audiences would expect in Europe or the US.

Imported and local cultures

With a big festival of mainly Western classical music, how does the community keep hold of its culture, and how have people been encourage to attend live events when it's not part of the social make up of the population?

Andrea Bocelli aidience
Big crowds cheered the headline performers

"It's not been easy," says Barrett Wissman, chairman of IMG Artists who organised the festival.

"You have to have a mixture - the big names to make the headlines, local artists, both from the UAE and the Gulf to demonstrate your commitment to the culture here. But you also have to have education to engage with young people and their families and bring on a new generation."

Matthew Barley agrees: "It's easy to do a firework festival, fly the stars in and out again. But I've been working with children from all over the region on an improvisation piece at the same venue I played my concert. This is what makes this festival different. This is why it works and why you feel it can grow."

This is only the second year that there has been a charge on admission, but concerts by artists such as Lebanon's Majida al-Roumi, Tunisia's Latifa and the Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma sold out.

Big plans

Abu Dhabi's Authority for Culture and Heritage is undertaking a four-year building plan for vast new premises.

Abdullah Salim al-Amri, the foundation's director, is the keeper of a plan to make Abu Dhabi the region's cultural hub.

"To preserve our culture amid the effects of globalisation we must invest in culture and arts. Today we have money, but in 50 years or 100 years who knows? We are investing in culture and arts now, to be sure we will stay a part of the international community. We don't want to be a developed country without a soul."

Central to this plan is the enormous al-Saadiyat Island development - a $27bn project with a new Guggenheim museum, the Abu Dhabi Louvre gallery, a performing arts centre and concert hall. New York University is also opening a campus on the island.

Like everything else here it's ambitious, modern and expensive - an amalgam of traditions, cultures, classical and modern.

There have been criticisms that it is impossible to "impose" culture in this way, but Barrett Wissman disagrees.

"It's the freshness that provides not just the challenge but the opportunity. No-one has become a ballet person, or an opera person, they just like coming to concerts, enjoying this new experience."

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