New Classics

Gemma Lacey

Abu Dhabi has ambitious plans to cement itself as a cultural hub for the Middle East and they’re investing in many ways to create vital programming with Hollywood composers including Bryan Tyler. We caught up with program director Ronald Perlwitz to learn more about the program

Can you talk about your goals and hopes for Abu Dhabi Classics?

We started with Abu Dhabi Classics nearly 10 years ago with the objective to build a high-level classical music concert series in Abu Dhabi. At same time, we wanted to introduce new talent bringing the  best soloists and orchestras to the country .

Were there challenges with this approach?

We were faced with an environment that wasn’t familiar with this form of music. Thus, our goal was and still is to establish classical music as a part of people’s lives and aspirations here. This is done by adopting new approaches to bringing this music to people and to make it interesting, especially to the younger generations. Our work has always had this double focus: ensuring great classical music quality and creating a classical music community in the UAE that carries this music, loves it, and plays it.   

What’s been most exciting and satisfying about putting this program together?

That our approach worked well. If you look at the quality of the music delivered by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, that we have been able to establish Abu Dhabi Classics it’s at a level similar to what you would hear in the major European Cities. This is unique in the Region. Abu Dhabi Classics has become a strong brand. But this is just one side of the medal. The real success this year was creating a moment when our Youth Orchestra in Abu Dhabi took the stage with Royal Philharmonic: Where in the world can young people perform with a world-leading orchestra, can interact with the musicians, ask questions, regularly benefit from masterclasses? This is the spirit I was talking about: that we need to build our public, to make sure there are everywhere in the city young people passionate about classical music that will act as Ambassadors for it. 

Can you talk about the bigger cultural intentions for music and the arts in the UAE?

Abu Dhabi is today part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a City of Music. It is the first Member of this network in the Region. This says a lot: Abu Dhabi is aiming to be the Cultural Capital of the Region and I trust that this has been achieved. 

You’ve had a very international career working in Paris and many other culturally rich cities, how does that perspective inform the work you’re doing in Abu Dhabi?

I have discovered many things in Abu Dhabi and I am still discovering daily. When I came to Abu Dhabi my background was (mainly German) classical music: this has changed radically. I have learned about Classical Arabic Music, Khaleeji Music, Indian Music, Chinese Music… So many new genres. Every day this also allows me to understand the classical roots I am coming from better.

In a way, I would love to contribute a bit to abandon this idea of “Western Classical”. Classical Music is not Western anymore! When an Asian Orchestra travels to Abu Dhabi and plays Beethoven here, the concept of “Western” must be revised. A lot of my work goes in this direction. To give people access to some of the most beautiful music there is, but with a spirit of openness and tolerance and with a true curiosity for other forms of music that might have inspired or be inspired by it. 

What have been some highlights for you so far?

Oh, that’s difficult: there were many.!We had the Bayreuth Festival here in Abu Dhabi. For the first time in their more than a century-old history they performed a full opera production outside of Bayreuth (Germany). And this is in an Arab City that doesn’t even have yet a real opera house. This was my very personal highlight. Also bringing orchestras like Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Royal Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden on stage, and performers like Lang Lang, YoYo Ma, Naseer Shamma, Majda El Roumi, Renaud Capuçon etc… All of these were highlights! It’s impossible to make a selection…

You’re passionate about bringing emerging talent out as well as established artists, can you tell us more about that?

It’s very much linked to the above as well: we want the artists to identify with their role as Abu Dhabi Classics artist, as an Artist that plays music in Abu Dhabi. We want them to understand our project, to stay longer in Abu Dhabi, to be inspired by what they see here. We are bringing top stars but also the young and emerging stars who can help us achieve this goal of regularly reaching out to, of creating a link with the young audiences here.

A violinist like Timothy Chooi who played here with Royal Philharmonic, but also with the Bait Al Oud musicians perfectly embodies this type of artist. Timothy stayed longer even to give masterclasses; he would come back in a few months to play in the oasis city of Al Ain. This is how we envision our cooperation with artists: not just to come here, play, and leave, but artists that play together with our musicians, and get to know the country and its people.

The educational workshops you’re facilitating are also really inspiring, can you tell use more about those?

As I mentioned above, they are a crucial element of our Strategy, an important way to disseminate the passion for classical music. At the same time, I would like to consider the other perspective as well: through them, the orchestra musicians can work with the Youth of the country and by doing so, they get to know much more about its culture, its beliefs, its philosophy than if they were just doing a few touristic excursions. We also do residencies for musicians, long long-term stays. We are always aiming at creating a knowledge transfer, and this transfer should never be one-sided: the orchestras learn a lot when traveling here. Abu Dhabi has become a true place of Cultural exchange, of tolerance and mutual understanding and in this music plays a key role.   

Lastly is there anything about what you’re doing or have planned that we should know more about?

We will soon announce our 2024 concerts, but rest assured that they will reflect the same spirit I have been talking about and show the same quality. These concerts are events worth traveling to Abu Dhabi for; not just because of the music you will hear, but because of this atmosphere of tolerance, this passion to discover other cultures that surround them.