A labour of love Paloma O’Shea Artíñano’s efforts have turned Madrid into a sought-after centre of music education Image Credit: Supplied

It was a cultural experience that took a year to be realised, but as soon as Paloma O’Shea Artíñano arrived in the capital, its harmonious blend of cultures and unique achievements captured her heart.

“This is my first visit to Abu Dhabi and I can assure you that I will return because I have had a wonderful impression of the country. I am amazed by this young country, which is full of energy, incredible [architecture], where things are done with intelligence, [hard] work and … good taste!” O’Shea Artíñano said.

O’Shea Artíñano was part of a distinguished panel of experts who explored the importance of cultural diplomacy during the 2014 Abu Dhabi Festival Riwaq Al Fikr Debates. The festival’s main programme ended with a stellar performance by Lebanese artist Michel Fadel on March 31. However, a unique sound installation by the world-renowned Bill Fontana — a special commission by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf) — is open to the public until April 20.

“It was a very interesting session because the matter being discussed was of the highest importance. In [today’s] world, everything changes so rapidly, and diplomacy has also changed very much. Perhaps not so much in its objectives but rather in its means and, in this connection, culture in any form becomes more relevant as a diplomatic instrument to build relationships and understanding between nations,” O’Shea Artíñano said.

A distinguished patron of the arts in her native Spain, O’Shea Artíñano noted that the festival was a rich, well-organised event that left a lasting impression on both the participants and the audience.

“The festival is wonderful. Madame Kanoo had done things perfectly and the great leader she is, she transmits her enthusiasm to everybody ... it was truly a great honour to be invited,” O’Shea Artíñano said.

She added: “I really should have come last year [when I was also invited], as that was Spain’s year at the Festival. Sadly, it was not possible due to other commitments and I had to postpone the visit.”

O’Shea Artíñano noted that she also managed to attend several concerts, which were among the highlights of her stay in Abu Dhabi.

“I very much enjoyed the European Union Youth Orchestra’s performance with the maestro, Vladimir Ashkenazy, whom I admire, as well as cellist Gautier Capouçon. Also, Renée Fleming and tenor Michael Schade offered lovely opera arias. She sang beautifully for the audience ... which gave me the impression that she was very happy [to be] in Abu Dhabi ... I was also struck by the talent of [UAE soprano] Sara Al Qaiwani, who sang an encore with Renée Fleming,” she said.

O’Shea Artíñano’s keen observations are not just the result of her passion for music but have been honed over a lifetime of immersion in the world of music — from the when started playing the piano as a young girl to founding the acclaimed Santander International Piano Competition, the Albéniz Foundation and the Reina Sofía School of Music.

“My passion for music goes back as far as I can remember. I always dabbled in it, even as I was raising my family. It was only after my children had grown up that I used all my energy for the promotion of music and musical teaching in my country,” she said.“The Santander competition was the first thing I founded, in 1972, because I wanted to help young pianists at the difficult phase — at the start of their professional careers. Then, in 1991, with the support of Her Majesty the Queen [Sofía], my musician friends and with the institutional structure offered to me by the Albéniz Foundation, I started the Reina Sofía School of Music with the idea that the best professors in each instrument from around the world should come to Madrid to teach young talented Spanish and foreign students.”

Since then, O’Shea Artíñano’s initiatives grew in leaps and bounds, which encouraged her to launch similar programmes including the Santander Encounter of Music and Academy and the International Institute of Chamber Music of Madrid.

“I’m very pleased by their great successes ... it’s been more than 40 years since I began my efforts and now, the quality of the Spanish Orchestras has improved greatly. For the first time in history we have string quartets of international standard in Madrid and Spain is now fully integrated into a global network promoting excellence in music education,” O’Shea Artíñano’s said.

She also noted that foundation welcomed students from across the world, including the Middle East, whether to study or participate in the Santander International Piano Competition, which is now accepting submissions. Out of hundreds of entries, only 20 will be selected to compete in front of distinguished judges later this year.

“I was able to recruit many great professors to the Reina Sofía School thanks to the help I received from very generous friends such as Zubin Mehta, Yehudi Menuhin, Alicia de Larrocha and Slava Rostropovich [who are among the Albéniz Foundation’s board of trustees]. Also, this summer, I’ve arranged for Sara Al Qaiwani to come to the Santander Encounter of Music and Academy, where she will be able to perform and share her experiences with other young talented musicians from the best European schools,” O’Shea Artíñano said.

Would she consider a student exchange programme with an institution in the UAE or Middle East? Or would she ever open a branch in Abu Dhabi? “The truth is, to maintain and improve the school in Madrid is in itself an enormous challenge that needs all my energy. Therefore, it is difficult to think about opening a branch in any other place. We are, however, open to collaborating and developing joint activities. As I said, the enthusiasm and vitality that I have found in Abu Dhabi is very inspiring,” she said.

Even as the foundation and its projects enjoy great presence and demand, O’Shea Artíñano, who has presided over it since its founding in 1972, has had to weather a few rough patches over the years.

“The Albéniz Foundation has faced great difficulty twice due to economic crises in Spain. The first was in 1991, shortly after the opening of the school, and the global crisis today that began five years ago ... especially since 90 per cent of the foundation’s expenses are borne by its sponsors,” she explained. “However, the fact that even amid these enormous difficulties the majority of our sponsors have decided to continue supporting our school, even with the incorporation of new ones, fills me with pride because it means that for them we are an important project.”

O’Shea Artíñano’s tireless efforts have been recognised internationally. She has been awarded the Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Music, the Legion of Honour of the French Republic and the Picasso Medal of the UNESCO. “I feel so honoured to be recognised by all these distinguished institutions, which reinforces the belief of everyone who is a part of the foundation that we are on the right path and are contributors to society. But I will always be touched by the generous gesture of His Majesty the King (Juan Carlos I), who honoured me with the title of Marquise of O’Shea,” she said.

O’Shea Artíñano indicated that she would love to take some time off to relax, but her schedule won’t allow her to — at least not yet. “After Abu Dhabi, I’m flying to Basel [Switzerland], to visit the University of Music. Afterwards I will attend the Easter Festival in Salzburg [Austria] and thereafter the Castleton Festival [the United States), where the maestro Lorin Maazel has invited some students of the Reina Sofía School to play ... among other events on my calendar,” she said.

But O’Shea Artíñano still won’t miss two important family events later in the year. “My granddaughters will be graduating from Brown and Yale universities, and I will be there to show them how proud I am — and to celebrate their achievements, of course,” she said.

Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.