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A touch of show tunes and heavy dose of traditional masterpieces at Dubai Classics

A complaint often heard in Dubai is that there is a dearth of classical music. While the capital’s cultural scene is flourishing, with the Abu Dhabi Festival set to begin next month and the return of Abu Dhabi Classics after a three-year absence, residents of the UAE’s most populous emirate have been feeling left out.

But now the people of Dubai have an outstanding classical music festival they can call their own, courtesy of the return of Dubai Classics.

While 2014’s inaugural event showcased the talents of the classical-crossover singer Sarah Brightman, this year, organisers made the purist-pleasing decision to book two of the world’s very best orchestras, who performed at Dubai World Trade Centre on Thursday and Friday, Feburary 19 and 20.

The opening night featured London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which performed a notably populist programme of music made famous through movies.

They brought out hidden depths to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings(famously used on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War dramaPlatoon), highlighting textures often overlooked by its regular use in films and pop songs.

The true power of the renowned ensemble was unleashed with Jean Sibelius’s masterpiece Finlandia, a work that is both optimistic and rousingly jingoistic, yet was rendered with a pastoral warmth and chilling modernism.

John Williams’s themes from the movies Jaws and Star Wars were inevitably huge crowd-pleasers – but they felt slightly incongruous on the programme alongside true classical pieces.

Conducted by Alessandro Fabrizi, the RPO also touchingly opened the evening with performances of the UAE and United Kingdom national anthems.

If the opening night was defined by popular appeal, Friday was about shedding fresh light on works for strings by the masters. Led by the founder Vladimir Spivakov, the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra both pleased and probed with a first-half performance of Tchaikovsky’sSerenade for Strings, a pleasantly romantic four-parter notably lacking the drama associated with the composer’s symphonies.

The weekend’s highlight, however, was an arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango suite, originally written for just flute and guitar in 1986, but here rearranged as a virtuosic chamber showcase by the orchestra’s Alexey Strelnikov, one of four soloists who each performed one of the suite’s themed parts.

Most applause went to Evgeny Shulkov for his fiery runs on Nightclub 1960, however it was the brooding passages of Café 1930, performed by Alexey Lunin, that were most moving.

Markedly more appreciative than Thursday’s audience, concertgoers were treated to four short, surprise encores.

While the music was frequently sublime, it wasn’t always easy to appreciate. Great efforts had been made to transform a space normally used for conventions into a classy concert venue, but the acoustics in Sheikh Saeed Hall 3 are not ideal for a live orchestra and the loud hum of air conditioning was frustratingly audible during quieter moment. One felt especially for soloist Alexandra Dariescu during her dazzling pianissimo passages in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, on Thursday.

Moreover, the technical set-up – with large screens either side of the stage, towering speaker stacks hanging from the ceiling and the performers bathed in coloured spotlights – at times felt more akin to a rock gig than a concert hall. These are all reasons to look forward to the upcoming Opera District in Downtown Dubai.

More frustrating, however, was the audience. Dozens arrived late and were admitted mid-performance. Many felt the need to talk or film the concert and small children were allowed to run up and down the aisles.

There was humour to be found in all this annoyance – I spotted one audience member attempting to use mobile app Shazam to identify the piece being performed (note to said person: It was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but perhaps you’d find it easier to pick up a programme next time).

While it would be wrong to dismiss these as minor gripes, they certainly didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for the music, or the project.

It was an astounding revelation to experience two such esteemed orchestras in Dubai and the big turnout on both nights proved there is a genuine passion and deep hunger for classical music in the emirate

Let’s hope this is the first of many more such events – and long may Dubai Classics reign.

 rgarratt@thenational.ae