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BBC Proms brings music to Dubai

Tune in to one of the world’s largest classical music festivals at Dubai Opera from March 21-24

  • While in the UK, the BBC Proms is an eight-weekfest, in Dubai it’s a four-day sampler of what’s possible.Image Credit: BBC Proms
  • David Pickard, director of BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall, the traditional home of BBC Proms.Image Credit: BBC Proms
  • Joanna Marsh says Proms’ coming to Dubai will put ‘this place on the map in a unique way’.Image Credit: BBC Proms

Air. Water. Sunshine. Music.

Each is for everyone. And one of the crusaders in spreading the melody — that sound that goes in through your ears but moves your very bones — is the BBC Proms. The world’s biggest classic music festival, which celebrates its 123rd season this year, is coming to the UAE, from March 21-24, and will deck the halls of Dubai Opera with bouquets of beautiful sound.

This is only the second time the UK fest has ventured abroad, says David Pickard, director of BBC Proms.

“[We had our] first-ever Proms abroad last year when we went to Proms Australia ... and trying to recreate the same experience as here [in the UK],” Pickard told Gulf News tabloid! over the phone. The experiment was a success.

“So when we had the invitation to go to Dubai, to come do something similar there, we felt this would be a wonderful time to do it. And also of course it’s a special year this year, because of the UK-United Arab Emirates year of collaboration of the British Council.”

He is quick to stress that the event, since its inception, has been about getting classical music to the widest possible audience. This is done through efforts such as subsidised tickets — even in Dubai, a ticket to the four-night festival will set you back only Dh300; on average, the cost of a seat at the Dubai Opera can range from Dh250-Dh1,500.

Asked which show is a must-see, the director laughs, calling that a tough question. Then, he replies, “For me, the very first concert on March 21 is a wonderful example of what the Proms stands for.

“We have an Emirati composer and we have an English composer and we also have two major pieces of British music. And you know the Proms has always been about British music as well as other music. And I think it reflects very well what the whole festival is about.” And then of course there’s the last night’s party — an annual tradition; tickets are only available to this event if you have passes to another night’s show too. It will feature compositions from Shostakovich and Debussy; Proms soloist Benjamin Grosvenor performing Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto; and BBC Singers joining the orchestra for Handel’s Zadok the Priest. Virtuoso oud player Joseph Tawadros will also premiere his new work.

Activities and workshops

While in the UK, the BBC Proms is an eight-week fest littered with concerts, talks, workshops and family events, in Dubai it’s a four-day sampler of what’s possible. There are activities and workshops for the musically inclined, and a chance for amateurs to get a little guidance from professionals.

“The Proms is about bringing music to the widest possible audience. And that something means not just putting on concerts but it means being more proactive, really making sure we’re engaging with amateur musicians as well as professional musicians. We have a learning department here that we are very proud of,” said Pickard. “For instance, the idea of coming [to Dubai] and working with the Arabian Youth Orchestra, I think is really a particularly exciting thing for me because we do a very similar project here in the UK with the Proms Youth ensemble. [They] work with professional players, and it’s just a wonderful way for talented young people to learn from more experienced and more skilled players.”

Dubai-based British composer Joanna Marsh agrees that the level of orchestra coming to town is unparalleled; she says their coming to Dubai will put “this place on the map in a unique way”.

The phone line is speckled with static and her voice is a bit muffled — but none of that hid the excitement she’s feeling.

She’s got two segments at the festival: March 22, a list of songs called Arabesques, and March 23, when she debuts her composition inspired by the region, Flare.

“I found this fantastic story written by a Saudi author called Mohammad Hassan Alwan,” she said. “It was a short story which had a very big impact on me, and I very much like to use influences from the region when I write my music. I found this one really made my hair stand on end, it was so profound in a way. It was a lovely story about a little boy who heard in the distance the very first oil flares from the oilfields that were being developed and for him it was the most incredible, exciting experience. The way the author talks about it, you can feel the excitement. The story is all from his eyes, but of course, as this little conservative community of this village is coming up ... there are downsides to it. and the thing that excited my interest was the idea that within something so compelling and attractive, there is also the dark side.”

Quality of performance

She says the whole programme is so carefully and cleverly curated that you do not have to be a musical genius or an aficionado to enjoy it — it really is for everyone. And the quality of performance, she says, is exactly the same here as it is in the UK. “With this group you get the real, real thing,” she says.

Marsh’s credentials include a composition for the Queen, written for her visit to Abu Dhabi in 2010, called The Falcon and the Lion. She says she’s looking forward to the music of Mohammad Fairouz, who plays on March 21 and 22, and Gary Carpenter, who is opening the Proms with Dadaville, “a piece which has fireworks in it ... spectacular”.

Marsh hopes that this can be an annual event in the UAE, as in the UK since its start in 1895 by Robert Newman, manager of the then newly built Queen’s Hall in London.

And perhaps it can also follow suit in terms of unusual venues as last year the show took the music to the streets as originally planned.

Last year was also Pickard’s first year as director of the Proms. As a lot of the programming and ideas are planned two-three years in advance much was already in place for Proms Dubai before he came on board.

“Of course, I haven’t been out there so I haven’t seen the wonderful opera house, but it is something that could be really interesting for the future to explore,” he said. “We could do all sorts of interesting things, go to different spaces, make music work in different spaces.”

Don’t miss it

BBC Proms Dubai runs in Dubai Opera from March 21-24. For a complete list of performances, tickets and schedules, go to

Here are some of the acts that you cannot miss:

March 21: Gary Carpenter, Dadaville; Mohammad Fairouz, Pax universalis

March 22: Judith Bingham, The Drowned Lovers

March 23: Joanna March, Flare world premiere; BBC Symphony Orchestra( Edward Gardner conductor; Benjamin Grosvenor piano); Late Night Prom: Tawadros Quartet

March 24: Joseph Tawadros, New commission for oud and orchestra world premiere