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Abu Dhabi festival to feature world premieres

  • Story Highlights
  • Festival runs March 22-April 2 at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace complex
  • Iraqi oudist Naseer Shamma, Lebanese singer Hiba al Kawas debut works
  • IMG Artists collaboration brings Netrebko, Znaider, Thibaudet, Chang to concerts
  • Bolshoi dances 'Swan Lake,' Vladimir Jurowski conducts London Philharmonic
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By Porter Anderson
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(CNN) -- Although the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival is in its fifth year, a first-time liaison with New York-based IMG Artists has fast-tracked it onto a new plane of potential.


The Emirates Palace complex is the setting for the 2008 Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival.

If organizers have their way, this year's program will serve to leverage the work of some Western concert stage icons in favor of some international visibility for contemporary Arab-world artistry.

The program opens March 22 and runs to April 2. Highlights will include violinist Nikolaj Znaider and the London Philharmonic under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski; pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in an evening of Mozart, Ravel and Prokofiev; and Grammy-nominated soprano Anna Netrebko in a special gala with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra.

But of signal importance to the festival's high-gain advance in iconic Western artistry is its potent infusion of Middle Eastern work, which organizers hope can help the program stake a claim by Abu Dhabi not only for top-ranked cultural interests represented by coming developments with the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, but also for regional cross-cultural development.

  • Egyptian actor and singer Khaled Selim is featured in an evening of Arab music with Asmma Almonaoar and Saeed Kamal's orchestral direction on March 24.
  • The 55-year-old Iraqi oud virtuoso Naseer Shamma is to premiere eight new compositions of his own on April 1, accompanied by a specially formed 60-piece ensemble of Eastern artists.
  • And Hiba al Kawas, the Lebanese soprano and composer, will debut a new composition on April 2 with guitarist Jose Maria Gallardo del Rey and the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under the direction of Wojciech Czepiel.
  • Beirut-born festival founder Hoda Ibrahim Al Khamis-Kanoo calls this her "bridge between cultures" and sees her mission as one not only of importing great Western performance onto Abu Dhabi's stages, but also cultivating and championing the artistry of the Arab world as well. Photo See a gallery of images of artists booked for this year's Abu Dhabi festival »

    "This year," Al Khamis-Kanoo says, "features a visual-arts component, as well as music, and that's our exhibition of the work of Nja Mahdaoui from Tunisia." Mahdaoui is an artist in his seventies whose energetic calligraphic treatments of text are merged with visual imagery in a range of works including paintings, tapestries and book illustration.

    The real key to boosting the festival's stature among world events has been the new tie-in Al Khamis-Kanoo has engineered with the formidable stable of artists represented by IMG. In fact, she gets not only access to these vocal and instrumental stars but also to a pioneer in the staging of festivals.

    Barrett Wissman, IMG's chairman, is the impresario whose development of the Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, Italy (August 2-12 this year), has led to his co-founding with Richard Walker of the Festival del Sole in Napa Valley, California (July 12-20), and -- newest of the series -- the Singapore Sun Festival (October 18-20).

    "It's very rare," Wissman said in a conference call with Al Khamis-Kanoo from Abu Dhabi, "for us to be lucky enough to have somebody like Hoda who has taken this as far as she has. Way before the ideas that now exist here of Abu Dhabi as a cultural island, Hoda was working to make this happen."

    A major factor, of course, is sponsorship, and Abu Dhabi's program enjoys not only support from the jewelry firm Chopard but also the patronage of Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan.

    That royal family backing, Wissman says, makes it impossible to talk hard figures in terms of an overall budget for this year's festival.

    But a part of Al Khamis-Kanoo's success in attracting the partnership of IMG is her focus on education. Abu Dhabi's Culture and Heritage Authority reports that more than 10,000 UAE schoolchildren saw events in the 2007 festival, and this year's program includes an all-student concert staged by young Abu Dhabi performers a week before the main festival opens, on March 15.

    Once in sway, this year's core festival will include IMG's Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Karel Chichon in a program featuring Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" concertos on March 31.

    Netrebko on March 29 is joined by mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca and bass Erwin Schrott in an evening of Mozart and Verdi with the Bolshoi group, under the supervision of Alexander Vedernikov.

    And Znaider's festival-opening program with the London Philharmonic includes Brahms' Violin Concerto.

    "The thing is," says Wissman, "that we've actually put this together this year very fast. We tried an event in December with the Swedish Radio Symphony," Stéphane Denève conducting, "and we had the same response we've had in our other festivals -- the artists loved doing this, they could tell this was a place they wanted to work."

    Wissman, a pianist, himself, gauges the success of his festivals not only by the audiences they attract but by the artists he can woo from his roster to participate in them.

    "And you know," he says, "when people in the West think about the Emirates, you can't imagine what's in their minds. But I can say from having worked here, that what we're finding" -- he and his artists -- "is a testament to the personal commitment of these people to develop their arts in the right way."


    "It would be arrogant, for example, for us to come in with all-Western music. And this is why Hoda's inclusion of so much Arab work, and the collaborations that will occur between Arab and Western musicians, is so important."

    And for her part, Al Khamis-Kanoo, credits the UAE's acceptance of her work as proof that "women here have a chance to excel and be recognized. It's really not that different for me, as a woman here, than it would be in other parts of the world. I am blessed to have reached and achieved what I have." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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