The Qatar Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center
Thursday, February 26, 2009
For centuries, orchestras have represented something of a paradox in terms of national identity. The basic idea is that to boost your local profile, you recruit all the great international musicians that you can. That tradition continues in 21st-century Qatar. The 101 players of the Qatar Philharmonic, which was officially launched last October and which performed at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night, represent a veritable melting pot of nationalities.
Does this further Qatar's international cultural identity? The jury will be out until the orchestra has shown that it has that essential quality in a field that is notably slow to change: staying power. At the moment, as a young, raw body, its best policy is to create a track record for itself by racking up as many performances as it can.
The orchestra, which was established by the Qatar Foundation and conceived as a permanent, year-round entity, made a bid to start strong by engaging Lorin Maazel as conductor for its inaugural performance and this Kennedy Center appearance (part of the Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World festival), thus ensuring that the classical music world would at least take notice. Tuesday's audience, however, was far more impressed with the other big name of the evening, Marcel Khalifé, the Lebanese oud player and composer whose superstardom in Arab countries has not reached the consciousness of most American audiences (though he has certainly performed in this country, including a few appearances with Kristjan Jarvi's Absolute Ensemble in another melting-pot world-music program).
Khalifé is also the Qatar Philharmonic's music director, a title that seems to indicate not a conductor but the person who determines the group's musical direction. There is a good amount of determining necessary, and not all of it appears to have been done. On the one hand, the orchestra is setting out to be a first-rate ensemble in a Western tradition; on the other, it seeks to promote Arab music. The hitch is that traditional Arab music is written for other kinds of instruments and even other tunings. It's an obstacle that Khalifé attempted to surmount by juxtaposing the five-member ensemble known as a takht, the basic building block of Arab music, with the forces of the full orchestra in the opening piece, "Arabian Concerto" (which he composed for the orchestra's inaugural performance).
As a symbol, the piece worked fine, giving the Arab instruments (including the lute-like oud and the reed flute called a ney) a place of prominence and setting them in dialogue with their Western counterparts. As music, it was less interesting. The emphasis was on contrasting different sounds rather than making the sounds do anything interesting themselves. The orchestra essentially served as an innocuous backdrop, offering Western translations of phrases introduced by the Arab instruments, rubbing away the distinct timbres and colorings until they were smoothed into an anodyne vernacular. Rather than a journey, this was more akin to a series of snapshots in a travel brochure.
Far more successful was Khalifé's second piece on the program, "Salute," a miniature concerto for orchestra and the traditional tabla (a kind of drum) played by his son, Bachar. Freeing a single instrument from the larger ensemble helped the tabla's character come more to the fore, and when it engaged in a colloquy with the solo violin, one felt the stirrings of a dialogue that was worth hearing.
Beethoven's Fifth, on the second half of the program, let the orchestra show its Western chops. Maazel led it with a crisp fluidity; the resulting playing sounded at times like someone learning a new language and concealing uncertainty by speaking rapidly. That there were no glaring weaknesses reflects international standards (the ensemble members were allegedly selected from some 3,000 applicants). But there were no great strengths, either. The orchestra's sound was shallow, without profound sonic depths to plumb (even at crucial moments, the fortissimos seemed at best polite mezzo-fortes). And the sound throughout evinced a certain vulnerability, a sense of a shiny but fragile facade held carefully upright with the help of Maazel's detailed, finicky touch.
The ensemble did demonstrate flexibility by moving from light, classical Beethoven to a more robust reading of the unexpected encore, selections from Bizet's "L'Arlésienne." But the close of the concert was more marked by the unexpected omission, without explanation, of the final piece in the printed program, which was to have been a performance by Khalifé himself. The audience was uncertain whether the house lights signaled the evening's end or another intermission. Thus, the final impression the Qatar Philharmonic gave was one of confusion.