Russian Performers Shine at the Abu Dhabi Festival

Russian Performers Shine at the Abu Dhabi Festival

Published: April 13, 2011 (Issue # 1651)


Dmitry Hvorostovsky and Yekaterina Syurina give a triumphant performance at the closing of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

The legendary Russian romance “Dark Eyes,” with its passionate lyrics and soaring spirits, may sound like an unlikely item for an arts festival held in the Persian Gulf region. Yet this was the triumphant finale of the closing concert of the Eighth Abu Dhabi Festival that ended on April 4 with a performance of the song by renowned Russian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky and soprano Yekaterina Syurina. Hvorostovsky’s spontaneous emotional choice was a sweeping success, rewarded by a ten-minute standing ovation.

This year’s festival saw the charismatic baritone’s first-ever performance in the Emirates.

“We cannot predict the reaction of a public that is virtually uninitiated, so we didn’t want to stage a heavy program,” Hvorostovsky said of the program, which fused arias and scenes from the operas of Verdi, Mozart and Rossini. “What I sought was for the Arab audiences to experience the widest emotional range that the art of opera can give, from serene sadness to bravado to cheer. I really hope that the public that has not really had much exposure to classic operatic art will enjoy itself.”

With this winning strategy, Hvorostovsky appeared very much in tune with the festival’s own philosophy of exploring cross-cultural connections, pushing creative boundaries and providing new insights while celebrating national heritage.

“The UAE is a country of tolerance and respect,” said Her Excellency Mrs. Hoda Ibrahim Al Khamis Kanoo, the founder and artistic director of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

“It is a place where people from diverse backgrounds and cultures have made their home… Bringing alive our cultural assets is imperative to their long term survival and we hope that our exciting program will engage a new generation of art lovers.”

The festival thrives on cultural diversity. On April 3, the night before Hvorostovsky’s appearance, audiences were treated to a heartfelt performance by one of the world’s greatest jazz vocalists Al Jarreau — one of only two musicians in history (the other being the late Michael Jackson) to have claimed Grammy awards in the jazz, pop and RB categories. Within minutes, the audience was clapping along, and halfway through the concert, the public was singing along, too.

Spanning three weeks — this time, from March 19 through April 4 — every year, the festival brings together musical and dramatic talent from all over the globe. This year’s event featured a tour of London’s Sadler’s Wells theater with a production of cutting-edge contemporary dance staging, “PUSH,” choreographed by the ground-breaking ballet master Russel Maliphant and starring Sylvie Guillem of the Paris Opera Ballet.

The Russian element was by no means small, with the Russian National Orchestra under the baton of Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti serving as the festival’s orchestra in residence, meaning they gave several performances during the course of the event, including the Hvorostovsky and Syurina concert and a “Bronfman and Brahms” concert on April 2 featuring the outstanding pianist Yefim Bronfman performing a program of Brahms, Verdi and Beethoven.


Jazz vocalist Al Jarreau.

The festival also saw a performance by the world-famous Lebanese composer and singer Abdel Rahman El Bacha, and a visit from London’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theater with a production of “Macbeth.” Turning the event into a festivity for literally all residents, Kanoo and her team decided not to limit the festival to a traditional series of performances in classical venues. Rather, the concerts spilled out into some unorthodox venues such as hospitals and orphanages.

The “Music in Hospitals” tour brought together a group of talented professional and amateur musicians to play for patients at Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi and Tawam Hospital in Al Ain. The tour was inspired by research that has explored the healing effects of music on the human body and the positive impact music has on the patient’s recovery process.

“Reaching out to hospitals and community organisations across Abu Dhabi shares in the spirit of ‘Bilad Al Khayr’ — the land of blessings,” Kanoo said. “The link between the arts and healing has been explored for generations, and we are proud to continue this important work alongside our partners throughout the Abu Dhabi Festival this year.”

Abu Dhabi is the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates that comprise the UAE, and is responsible for 80 percent of the country’s oil production — a titanic asset, considering that UAE  supplies nearly 10 percent of the world’s oil.

The festival is funded entirely by the Abu Dhabi ArtsMusic Foundation (ADMAF), a non-profit organization of which Kanoo is the founder.

As another powerful oil empire, Russia could follow the example of the Abu Dhabi Festival in the noble use of oil profits. For the Russian state, funding a classical arts event on that scale is unheard of. Arts sponsorship in the country remains in an embryonic condition, with the only exception being Russia’s own premier classical arts event, Valery Gergiev’s Stars of the White Nights Festival, which is funded through a string of private enterprises and arts patrons coming from both Russia and abroad.

Most symbolically, the Abu Dhabi Festival’s key stage is the magnificent Zaha Hadid Pavilion at the Emirates Palace Hotel. Designed by Baghdad-born British designer Zaha Hadid, a recipient of the world’s top architectural award the Pritzker Prize, the ground-breaking hall creates a spectacular backdrop for the entire festival, serving as its artistic tuning fork.

Daring contemporary architecture is key to Abu Dhabi. By 2015, the emirate looks set to complete its most ambitious project, Saadiyat Island, an entire cultural district that will host the first Louvre Museum outside France with designs from another Pritzker-winner, Jean Nouvel, as well as a new branch of the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry, and the Zayed National Museum designed by Norman Foster.

With such a wealth of international talent attracted to shape up the Abu Dhabi vision, the world is certainly on its way to getting a new cultural Mecca in its own right.

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