Alongside the Dresdner Staatskapelle of Germany, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra of Poland, and the Milan La Scala Orchestra of Italy is a UAE-based orchestra that only aims to represent the country nationally and internationally through music.
Formed in 2006, the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra (UAEPO), is originally a chamber ensemble composed of 20 people only. But it had grown to 65 members and had already performed with international singers Cara-Jane Roberts, Melanie Roberts, Duncan Royce, Cedric Vandenschrik, Margrit Anne Deppe, Irish musicians Frankie Gavin and Hibernian Rhapsody, and the Australian Jazz Quartet.
The UAEPO is also the first orchestra that featured the works of Darrol Barry, an Oman-based composer and Composer-in-Residence of the Royal Omani Symphony Orchestra, who also wrote the Arabian Sands Overture and 5 Arabesques, the two symphony works the UAEPO would be performing in March 10.
They would also present Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No.8, which is the composer’s preamble to his famous Symphony No. 9 The New World; and Richard Wagner’s prelude to the opera Tannhaeuser.
Below is an exclusive interview of the Al Ain Times News with Philipp Maier, the Conductor, Artistic Director and Project Manager of the UAEPO.
When was the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra established?
The orchestra was established as a chamber ensemble - then called ‘Dubai Philharmonia’ in early 2006. I started by attracting local musicians through interesting and varied concerts such as the Fairmont City Serenades and soon had a group of around 20 people rehearsing regularly and performing occasionally at public and private events.
Until December 2006, the ensemble has grown to a strength of around 35 musicians representing a full orchestral complement. We then decided to rename it the ‘Dubai Philharmonic Orchestra’ and launched it with two public concerts at the Dubai Community Theater and Arts Center (DUCTAC).
From then onwards, we grew from strength to strength as musicians and public alike realized that there is something special in the making. We also started attracting more and more musicians from other Emirates within the UAE and decided therefore to rename the orchestra into UAE Philharmonic in October last year. The orchestra now consists of 65 UAE-based musicians representing 19 nationalities – very much a reflection of the diverse multicultural society living in the UAE.
What is the your difference from other orchestras? What does the UAEPO offer that would make people listen to it?
We currently cannot compare ourselves to the major orchestras in the world as we are not funded and only have a limited amount of musicians available. [But] The UAEPO has a very unique approach to its program content. We perform music from literally all genres and are trying to include everything musically, which reflects the society in the country. We perform a lot of original compositions – we would be performing a world premiere in Al Ain - and I am constantly trying to uplift the orchestral education by including standard classical works as well as modern and contemporary music across all genres. A good example is the integration of Arabic music in our programs as well as projects like ‘Jazz meets Mozart,’ which we did last year with great success.
What is the UAEPO’s goal and expectations? Is it aspiring to be like the other orchestras in the world?
I think it is imperative for the UAE to have their own unique national Philharmonic Orchestra just like any other country in the world. The main goal and objective for all the hard work with the UAEPO is to achieve government recognition and a mandate to start a fully funded national orchestra.
Our participation in this year's Al Ain Festival means a big step ahead towards achieving this goal. I think we have proven over the last 14 months that there is a necessity for a national orchestra in the UAE. One cannot continue to permanently ‘import’ orchestras into the country. Like any other country in the world – especially one with such a culturally diverse society – should have an orchestra representing them nationally and internationally. Once the orchestra gets this government recognition, we will be able to build the UAEPO further and become a renowned orchestra representing the country.
What were the challenges the UAEPO has encountered during the years it has performed and how did UAEPO faced them?
The biggest challenge for us currently is the lack of funding. Due to this, we are not able to put on as many public concerts as we would like to. This, in return, also means that we cannot yet fully implement all the tasks of an orchestra such as educational outreach programs, varied public concerts with programs reflecting all the different cultures in this country, etc.
Also, there is still not enough understanding that a cultural institution like an orchestra needs funding, which does not necessarily yield a financial return. A symphony orchestra is an expensive cultural entity. Hopefully, we would be able raise this awareness in Al Ain.
There is also a lack of understanding between the relation of economic and cultural crossovers, as well as appreciation of the local musical culture.
How does the UAEPO choose the events it would play for, the singers it would play with and the kind of music it would play?
If the orchestra performs a corporate event I try to make no difference to a public concert. Program content gets chosen very carefully in line with the message of the event, but also in line with the artistic vision and principles of the orchestra. I always tell everyone that any corporate performance of the UAE Philharmonic should be seen as a step towards a wider awareness and realization of a local orchestra.
Unfortunately, there is too much of ‘gold digging’ in the events business here in the UAE and far too many entities around that do not realize the value of each orchestral performance. Aside from being a performing body, the UAEPO is also a cultural ambassador and institution.
Is there a plan to compose your own songs?
We already have performed many original compositions and are in the process of composing and developing more of our own material. We are in a very lucky position that we have many extremely dedicated and talented musicians in the UAEPO who are willingly contribute their talent and efforts to the orchestra.
We are also lucky to have a rather large basis of resources available to us such as a fantastic board of directors, PR and marketing companies, and three fully equipped recording studios, among others. There are many people in and around the UAEPO who help in many respects and we are very grateful for this. There will certainly be more original recordings and performances of the UAEPO in the future.
Does the UAEPO play for its audience or for the music it is interpreting? What are the ‘guidelines’ the UAEPO observes?
There is always a split between the two. Of course, our main objective is to present interesting and innovative programs to our audiences. There is also a lot of work to do in terms of ‘orchestral education’ and classical music as the basis for that. Due to the rather large demand the orchestra is under, we were lucky to gain quite a lot of performing experience. I think our audiences realize the growth in professionalism within the orchestra very clearly. Whenever we perform public concerts, I can sense some kind of pride amongst the audience that this is their orchestra, it is not just an imported ensemble, but rather made up of the ‘fabric’ the society in the UAE is made out of. This is a huge compliment and we take this very seriously.
Our main guideline is that there is a growing need for a cultural institution like an orchestra and we would like to contribute as much as possible to all aspects relating to this.
How do you gauge your audience's appreciation and enjoyment of your music?
Since our inaugural performance in December 2006, we had nothing but extremely positive reactions of the audience. There is a real feeling of ‘welcome’ when we perform publicly. This fact is also reflected by the interest in the media. I permanently get approach from the media regarding the orchestra. Most notably there were TV productions about the UAEPO by Bloomberg International, the German RTL, a documentary on ARTE is in process, and many local TV and radio stations.
From the time UAEPO started, can you say that you have done it? How do you want the people to remember the UAEPO (or at least, during the time you were its Musical & Artistic Director)?
Because I have started this orchestra from scratch, I will always see it somewhat as ‘my baby.’ It is very difficult to let go sometimes, but this is a personal learning process I have to accept to embrace, especially as the UAEPO has now grown to an extent where I simply can't do everything myself anymore.
I think if you chose the job of a musical conductor, you can never say that you have done it. I would certainly say I would have achieved a lot if the government in the UAE will eventually recognize the orchestra and my work, and we can turn this orchestra into a full-time professional ensemble. But then I will face new challenges and will very happily deal with them.
In the end my biggest wish is that I can concentrate on the real task: building and educating a great orchestra as the conductor and artistic director to eventually represent the UAE nationally and abroad and just simply "make music".