April 24, 2014 10:55 am

Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra profile

The Doha-based ensemble will be bringing its eclectic programming to the Proms this year
Han-Na Chang conducts the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

Han-Na Chang conducts the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

Today the programme is revealed for this summer’s BBC Proms, and among the orchestras performing will be an unfamiliar name: the Qatar Philharmonic. Yet what it lacks in brand recognition, the QPO makes up for in its distinctive programming – equally intriguing for audiences in London and Doha, Qatar’s capital.

For the Proms, the orchestra will offer a rare glimpse of contemporary Islamic composition, performing the Tehran-born Behzad Ranjbaran’s Sunrise alongside Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Back home, the situation is rather reversed: many Qataris have never heard of Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky.

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The 101-member ensemble, drawn from more than 30 countries, took shape in 2007, when the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s former managing director, Kurt Meister, was lured out of retirement to create “an orchestra of international standards, as quickly as possible”. Meister had much experience recruiting orchestras, though mostly for summer festivals, where conductors and repertory were already set. Like most of the 2,400 subsequent applicants for a place in the ensemble, he had to look for Doha on a map.

Much has changed since then, not least of which has been the development of Doha’s museum and university infrastructure, in support of Qatar’s aim to become the region’s cultural hub. The Philharmonic is funded by the Qatar Foundation, a semi-private, non-profit organisation run by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser (the wife of Qatar’s former ruling emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani) that has spearheaded much of the country’s development.

The orchestra was up and running within seven months, while its intended home – the 550-seat Opera House at the Katara Cultural Village – remained a construction site for another year. Although the orchestra first garnered international attention on tour with Lorin Maazel in 2009, its programming was a balance of European repertory with new Arabian works largely established by its founding music director and resident composer Marcel Khalife, a prominent Lebanese oud player. Of the 36 Arabian works currently in the QPO’s repertory, many were composed specifically for the orchestra.

The pieces’ composers – as well as the 14 Arab musicians in the orchestra and indeed nearly a third of its local audience – hail from Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, Arab countries where western music has been more deeply rooted than elsewhere in the region. More than half of the orchestra’s audience comes from expatriate communities from Europe and North America. Native Qataris make up about 5 per cent.

“This orchestra intends to be a fully international ensemble,” says its current music director, Han-Na Chang. “But all the things you take for granted in a professional orchestra, they still have to work on because the orchestra is so young, and because most of the musicians came here directly from conservatory, without professional experience.”

Chang, a former cello prodigy who took up conducting around the time of the orchestra’s founding, first led the group in two programmes in 2012. She was soon offered the top job. “What struck me was the difference between the first rehearsal and the performance,” says Chang, now in residence for 15 weeks per season.

“Despite the cultural differences,” says Chan, “we’re mostly from the same generation, with similar aspirations. Those elements of orchestral sound – depth, direction, blend, precision – all came from working together as an ensemble. Already, the musicians were listening to each other, and the results were truly satisfying.”

So too has the relationship been satisfying to Meister, who, after having two music directors in the past five years, sees Chang – who had previously founded the Absolute Classic Festival in Seoul – as the right choice to help develop the orchestra’s core repertory. “Han-Na has already created a more distinctive sound,” he says. “But she also has taste. She knows the difference between emotion and kitsch.

“Strauss’s own grandson once told me, ‘Grandpapa said if Ein Heldenleben is longer than 46 minutes, it’s a disaster.’ I checked Han-Na’s Heldenleben last January; it was 45 minutes and 35 seconds.”

As additional inquiries for touring have begun to surface, Chang’s relationship with the orchestra has also attracted the interest of Naxos Records, which has approached the orchestra to develop a series devoted to contemporary Arabian compositions.

Still, most of the orchestra’s efforts in bridging cultural gaps take place at home. In addition to initiating a chamber music series at Doha’s I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, the orchestra participated in Qatar’s National Day last year in a performance synchronised with fireworks on the waterfront promenade. Members of the brass section are still greeted on the street by locals a year after their chamber performance in the local souk.

For her part, Chang’s personal breaking through of cultural barriers came last month, when the visiting Vienna Boys Choir was joined by a children’s choir from Al Jazeera Children’s Channel. “One of the choirgirls came up to me afterward and said, ‘I want to be a conductor when I grow up. You’re my role model.’ Wow. I mean, I never thought we would have this kind of impact here.”

qatarphilharmonicorchestra.org

bbc.co.uk/proms

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