Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act I
Marcel Khalifé
Arabian Concerto
Salem Abdul-Karem
Qatar Symphony

Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel
Salem Abdul-Karem

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 April, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliMusical things are happening in Qatar. Not that we were really clear as to why we had gathered in the Royal Albert Hall. A speech would no doubt give the answers. No speech! A decent house though and, anyway, Lorin Maazel had put his name to the occasion. The single sheet of paper that passed as a programme gave only the very basic details of the works to be played. Curiously, a more detailed booklet was handed-out after the concert.

The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra plays to full symphony strength, its members representing thirty countries, and has been in existence for some eighteen months, the inaugural concerts and a previous tour all led by Maazel. Without ceremony, the conductor arrived for a spacious account of the Wagner (as so often nowadays termed an ‘Overture’ despite the composer designating it a “Vorspiel”, a prelude) noble or sluggish depending on your point of view, the strings unanimous and rich, the woodwinds and horns showing some slippage in terms of intonation.

The rest of the concert was devoted to ‘local’ offerings. Rather too much as it turned out, for the pieces, while enjoyable, were oh so long! Maazel has previously conducted Arabian Concerto and he was the master of its changes of metres. With several soloists on Arabian instruments in addition to a ‘normal’ symphony orchestra, this is an ‘East meets West’ work, attractive, colourful, diverse, but thirty minutes still proved a long haul, although this is not to deny Marcel Khalifé his compositional skill and his ability to communicate, even if the music just stopped rather than reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Whether we also then needed his Fanfare (however short, five minutes) is another matter, although this was the more interesting piece and included a solo for a hand-held drum; the music built to a frenzy.

After the interval, we no doubt received a definitive performance of Qatar Symphony, not least because its composer, Dr Salem Abdul-Karem, was conducting, and pretty decent with the baton he proved. The piece itself? Well, tuneful, colourful, sincere … but at over fifty minutes the musical material (largely indigenous, or based in folksong, one imagines) however pleasant was stretched beyond itself. One could cite numerous composers (mostly 19th-century) that this music in its presentation and scoring reminded of, Rimsky-Korsakov and Saint-Saëns, for example, and the designation of ‘symphony’ is perhaps taking things too far; Qatar Symphony may have the ‘usual’ four movements but a lack of development made for ‘heavy weather’ listening as well as thoughts that pruning could make an enjoyable 20-minute suite. Even so, the first movement lasted 23 in itself, something of a marathon, whereas the middle ones (respectively an intermezzo and then something dance-like and fantastical) had their moments. The finale had a jolly ending. One could sense a narrative in the music, and the performance was a fine and unanimous one; a testimony to diverse people coming together for something very specific. One assumes that the three ‘native’ works were receiving their UK premieres, but no such claims were made.

The Qatar Music Academy opens this September and one can only applaud the imitative of bringing music-students together in a flourishing environment – for artistic reasons, of course, but also for social ones.

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