The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra played outside of Europe for the first time in two decades at the weekend, kicking off a series of concerts in the Gulf states called the Abu Dhabi Classics.
The orchestra played to a packed house
As the orchestra started up at the seven-star Emirates Palace Hotel, the ceiling seemed to bend under the weight of gold stucco and the spectators sank into plush seats.
Looking more like something out of Thousand and One Nights than Ring of the Nibelung, the venue was hardly evocative of the hard seats filled by worshipful Wagnerians at the German composer's opera house in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth.
When the final tones of Twilight of the Gods faded on Saturday evening -- part of a Wagner Gala by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra under conductor Christian Thielemann -- the minor sensation was complete: The emirate had inaugurated the Abu Dhabi Classics, a first in the Gulf states.
But what would Richard Wagner have thought?
The concert marked another step in Abu Dhabi's mission to become a cultural capital.
A total of 22 concerts are scheduled until the season's end in May 2009. Among the guest artists will be top-flight stars dear to classical music fans: Lang Lang and Cecilia Bartoli, Zubin Mehta and Lorin Maazel, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Philharmonic Orchestra of London, the cellist Misha Maisky and pianist Arcadi Volodos, Bobby McFerrin and Till Broenner.
The Abu Dhabi Classics will run until 2012 at least, and its concerts will be integrated into the educational programm of schools in Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
On hand for the premiere was Katharina Wagner, who was recently named co-director of the annual Bayreuth Festival and is seeking new markets for Bayreuth and her great-grandfather's music.
She announced that the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra would, in future, be performing away from home once a year.
"We intend to revive this tradition," Wagner said, adding that entire productions, such as The Ring of the Nibelung, might be exported. She did not rule out directing a production herself in Abu Dhabi at some time.
Abu Dhabi's new music event aims to "build bridges," say culture officials in the emirate. The fabulously rich oil producer sees the creation of a music scene modeled after those in the West as a way to secure its place in the globalised world.
Following years of construction, "the new generation of rulers wants to take a further step," remarked Zaki Nusseibeh, deputy chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH).
The UAE's longtime ruler, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, died four years ago and was succeeded by a son. With 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Abu Dhabi looks as though it will enjoy oil income for some time to come. It has a population of about 800,000 and is somewhat smaller than the German state of Bavaria.
Abu Dhabi is set to host a branch of the Louvre museum
Abu Dhabi already boasts a literature prize and film festival, and is currently having 100 books by Western authors translated into Arabic.
"We spend a lot of money on culture," noted Abdulla Salim al Amri, director of arts and culture at the ADCH. He declined to specify a figure, saying that "any amount you name is OK." Every day, Abu Dhabi produces oil valued at some 240 million euros.
Off its coast, on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi is developing a cultural district that will likely have no equal worldwide. Covering an area of 27 square kilometers and expected to be completed in 2018, it will include four museums, a performing arts center, housing for 150,000 people, a golf course, and a marina.
One of the museums, an outpost of the Paris-based Louvre, is a shell flooded with light designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. Frank Gehry, architect of the celebrated Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, has designed an eighth branch of the New York-based museum for Saadiyat Island.
The performing arts center, a gigantic leaf-like structure of glass and concrete designed by Zaha Hadid, will contain an opera house, concert hall, and music hall for up to 6,300 spectators. Norman Foster is contributing a national museum, and Japan's Tadeo Ando has designed a museum dedicated to the UAE's maritime past.
So it was probably only a matter of time until Abu Dhabi latched on to Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Co.
The German connection
The concert was held in the luxury Emirates Palace
Germany's Till Janczukowicz, executive artistic director of the Abu Dhabi Classics, presented the emirate with a plan and managed within a few months to sign top artists who are booked for years in advance. Curiosity, and not only money, attracted them to the Gulf, he said.
Abu Dhabi had seen European orchestras before, most recently the Dresden State Orchestra of Saxony. The New York Philharmonic will perform in the emirate next year.
The Arab world has a special affinity for the romanticist Wagner, Nusseibeh noted. In his opera "Parsifal," for instance, the German composer distilled his longing for the Orient, he said.
Arabs' fondness for Wagner has nothing to do with his "ideology," Nusseibeh added, referring to Wagner's strident anti-Semitism.
"The Arab world isn't part of this debate," he said.
Foreigners made up the bulk of the some 1,000 people who came to Saturday evening's premiere at the Emirates Palace Hotel. About 100 students also attended, prompting Nusseibeh to remark that everyone could understand Wagner's music.