Qatar puts music front and centre

Dr Salem Abdul-Karem labours a point during rehearsals for the Qatar Symphony

The success of the Qatar Symphony was evident from the way Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the consort of the Emir of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, disregarded all protocol and hurried to the foot of the stage during the orchestra's first curtain call: she wanted Dr Salem Abdul-Karem and his team to play the final movement again, to listen again to this composer's vision of the future.

"I was shocked – pleasantly – when she came to the stage. I've led concerts in front of kings and presidents before, and they will applaud, or maybe even give us a standing ovation, but there's always a distance. But this is what Qatar is about, things are simpler here," Dr Salem Abdul-Karem tells Emirates Business the next day.

We're talking at the Ritz-Carlton Doha, where the symphony premiered on Sunday to an audience of 2,000, including the Emir and his wife. Abdul-Karem led his 80-member Sako Philharmonic Orchestra through the nearly hour-long composition. Commissioned by the state-sponsored Qatar Foundation, the classical symphony is inspired by the stories of the Qatari people and comprises four movements incorporating folk tunes.

"You can't say because we have oil and gas, we just have to eat and sleep and not have dreams and ambitions and ideas," Abdul-Karem says in explaining what the 48-minute piece is about. "It is the story of Qatar."

"We wanted to speak about the challenges and achievements of Qatar, from our old days to the coming years," explains Yousef Fakhroo, head of Marketing Relations and Public Relations at the Qatar Foundation.

State-commissioned music is a tradition going back centuries, and some of the world's finest pieces have been created as a result.

For Qatar, it is part of an attempt to reach out to the world, says Fakhroo. "The big picture is very clear. We want our story to be told internationally, to speak to the world in the same way the world speaks to us. Music is an immensely powerful form of expression and we must not underestimate the role it plays in society in sustaining cultural traditions and bridging cultures," he says.

But the foundation also hopes the effort will strengthen the country's – and the region's – social development. "We hope the symphony will mark a musical resurgence in the region, characterised by originality and a synthesis of traditions," says Fakhroo.

In line with those aims, a Qatar Symphony Orchestra is currently being formed with musicians from across Europe and Egypt, and the 101-member body is expected to make its debut later this year. A music academy will follow next year, and it is expected to share curriculum and faculty with the world's leading music schools and conservatories.

But Qatar isn't the first country in the GCC to push the cultural agenda.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are both building state-of-the-art orchestra halls, and Sharjah is already home to one. Both Saudi Arabia and Oman already have state-supported Royal Symphony Orchestras and the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra, formerly the Dubai Philharmonic, is a private-funded enterprise that has performed across the region. Oman was the first to commission new music, but its state-supported orchestral composition used Arabic instruments, thus limiting its reach.

Abdul-Karem's Qatar Symphony, which has been six months in research and composing, sidesteps that problem with a dual approach: it incorporates traditional Qatari tunes to reach out to an audience unfamiliar with classical – and even instrumental – music, but is written for Western-style orchestras so it can be played anywhere.

"We spent two days rehearsing one section in the third movement that uses a tune familiar to Arabs but which was initially beyond the European players," the composer tells me. "Everyone said, bring this big bass drum, it will be very beautiful. But if I do that now, and tomorrow the BBC would like to record it, what are they going to do? Shall I also bring the oud and the kanoon and have one big Arabic party," he sparkles. "No! I want to open a window to this region. Music fills the gap in understanding between people and musicians and we must let it do its work. That's why I didn't want an orchestra composed only of Arabic musicians, either."

But sampling Arabic melodies – including the children's song Bacher El Eid (Tomorrow is Eid) and Qatar's national anthem – was integral to the piece, which, over its four movements, explores the country's struggle in its early years, its challenges and achievements and sets out the path ahead. "You can build all the concert halls, you can buy a philharmonic orchestra – but what will they play? This is the problem!"

Any cultural attempt in the region must take into account its society, he says. "For example, in Iraq, in 1993, they said, let us start a ballet school, and brought in many experts from Russia. A huge number of families sent their young daughters, aged five or six, to the school, but withdrew them after they reached the age of 10. You need to study society. In France, I will be very glad if my fiancée is a ballerina, in Arab countries, they will kill me, or look down on me. So before you do anything, you need to look at the people."

One major challenge facing him as composer was that of the quarter tone, an interval about half as wide aurally as a semitone, which is half a whole tone. Integral to Arabic music, the microtone is uncommon in Western music, he says, and requires specially modified instruments. Abdul-Karem will not let on how he solved the problem, only saying his solution means any orchestra can play this composition. "I am a professional composer. I don't want to compose a score and put it away in a drawer. Music does not spread by talking, it needs studios, orchestras, radio play," he says.

The next step is to get other orchestras to play the piece. Already, says Fakhroo, a couple of international orchestras have expressed interest in playing it and Abdul-Karem says the conductor of a prominent European orchestra also approached him after the premiere. Fakhroo says a marketing blitz will take the symphony to some of the world's top concert halls, including, says Abdul-Karem, La Scala in Milan and London's Royal Albert Hall.

About the composer

Dubai-based oud guru Dr Salem Abdul-Karem was born in Baghdad in 1961. He holds twin qualifications in music and mathematics, from the Iraqi Institute for Musical Studies and the Faculty of Science at Baghdad University, respectively.

He has led concerts in Iraq and abroad, including the GCC countries and Europe, and he has been instrumental in forming several musical groups.

Abdul-Karem is a prolific music composer with several compositions for symphony orchestras. As an orchestrator his work included the orchestration and re-composing of Iraqi folk music.

He has lived in the UAE for 11 years and has served on a national committee to create a musical curriculum for schools.