Dubai: When the pandemic left Agnieszka Lewoc, a classical musician and music educator, with too much time on her hands, the dormant performer in her began to crave the stage. Determined, the flautist and pianist pressed pause on her teaching career and auditioned for an ensemble so momentous that it would go on to make headlines as Expo 2020 Dubai and A.R. Rahman’s all-women orchestra.
Hailing from Poland, Ines – Lewoc's stage name – settled in Dubai ten years ago. While she taught at various music schools and centres, her musical prowess also found expression with The Emirates Community Symphonic Orchestra. This was until her acceptance last March into the Firdaus Orchestra, which translates to ‘paradise’ in Arabic, that gifted her an experience she dubs as “really empowering”.
A melting pot of musical instruments
“We have our own sound,” said Ines on the culturally rich repertoire of the orchestra that infuses classical tunes with traditional Arabic and Indian instruments. “It’s not your typical orchestra. There are instruments from all over the world – sitar, Arabic percussion, nay, the buzuq.”
The distinct sound, a gorgeous snippet of which was previewed during the Expo 2020 Opening Ceremony, is the culmination of 50 female musicians representing 23 diverse nationalities from the region. The unique rendition of East meets West owes to the creative direction and mentorship of two-time Oscar and two-time Grammy winner A.R. Rahman.
“[A.R. Rahman] is present during rehearsals – he is very supportive and controls the sound, the ideas,” she added.
Daily eight-hour rehearsals
Ines is currently busy preparing for the orchestra's debut performance this weekend. A typical rehearsal session for the 33-year-old flautist is largely split into two parts in a day; four hours on her own at home in the morning and the remaining four with her fellow musicians. For an ensemble, Ines says in-person rehearsals ensure that everyone is on the same page.
“You need to check the tempo, dynamics, articulation and rhythm,” she said, pointing out how her private four-hour rehearsals are interspersed with breaks necessary for a musician playing an air instrument.
Trained in classical music with a postgraduate degree, Ines found herself fascinated by Firdaus’ atypical arrangements and symphonies. Where the Arabic percussion instruments present a strong, talented front, the nay – a type of end-blown flute – adds a “fairytale-like” windy layer to the composition.
“Even the sitar, which is one of the string instruments, stands above the sound of the violin – it’s stronger and more pronounced,” she added.
Looks are secondary, it's all about music
Visitors can catch the magical fusion in the flesh at the orchestra’s first official concert on October 23, 7pm at Jubilee Stage. Firdaus will assemble throughout Expo to mark special occasions and ceremonies with its very own base on site to retire to – the Firdaus Studio by A.R. Rahman, a permanent world-class facility that will support artists in the UAE and around the globe.
“[The orchestra] opens us up to different musical cultures. Since you have your own style as a musician, you have the opportunity to learn about and from each other. Every culture has a different tone,” said Ines. “All that [amassed] connection is powerful.”
[The orchestra] opens us up to different musical cultures. Since you have your own style as a musician, you have the opportunity to learn about and from each other. Every culture has a different tone. All that [amassed] connection is powerful.
From the very start, the special orchestra has been in the talks for a life beyond Expo 2020. And Ines is thankful for the synergy that the ensemble has built by working together on a daily basis, putting in hours of practice. Hopes are that the women of Firdaus will go on to defy gender stereotypes for a long time after, channelling the “feminine spirit” in equally genre-defying performances.
“Our looks are secondary,” concluded Ines. It's all about the music.